High numbers of people in Missouri continue to battle food insecurity, according to the latest Map the Meal Gap study data published by the hunger-relief organization, Feeding America.

The study, which uses data from the United States Census Bureau Current Population Survey (CPS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Thrifty Food Plan, found that nearly one in eight, or 813,840 Missouri residents are food insecure. About 209,870, or one in seven, are children.

Projected Increase in Food Security

Across the nation, about 37 million Americans, including more than 11 million children, lack affordability and access to enough nutritious food on a consistent basis, Map the Meal Gap data shows. The national food insecurity rate decreased from 12.5% in 2017 to 11.5% in 2018.

Missouri, too, has seen a decrease in its food insecurity rate, from 14.2% in 2017 to 13.3% in 2018. However, because of COVID-19, Feeding America, in a companion study, projects an increase in both national and local food security rates this year. In Lafayette County, the rate is expected to rise to 17.3%, compared to 12.3% in 2018.

Job and Income Loss 

Unemployment is one reason for the food insecurity exacerbation in this coronavirus climate. At a 10% unemployment rate, nearly 303,259 people are experiencing unemployment, according to the Missouri Department of Economic Development latest Jobs Report.

Statewide total unemployment decreased by some 5,235 people between April and May. However, data shows that since March, the Department of Labor & Industrial Relations (DOLIR) has received an estimated 688,483 initial unemployment claims by workers who had been laid-off or furloughed (temporarily laid off), due to the global outbreak, travel restrictions, and social distancing measures.

These workers lost their jobs involuntarily⁠ — and, under federal law, are indeed eligible for unemployment insurance (UI) payments, including regular unemployment compensation (UC) and pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA). But, initially, many had difficulty getting them due to outdated technology, busy phone lines, claim backlogs and delays.

Many UI claimants now receive their cash payments from the DOLIR. Yet, while it serves as a consistent income source for making ends meet, many laid-off and furloughed workers are struggling to meet their financial obligations, as noted by recent research.

In May, RAND Corporation researchers surveyed more than 2,000 American individuals with low-, middle-, and high-incomes. They found that, while about 30 percent of individuals at all income levels were having difficulty with paying their bills, such bill paying problems were highly concentrated among low-income households, specifically Black and Hispanic households.

The Urban Institute reports similar findings. After surveying more than 9,000 U.S. adults in April, the Institute found that, among families who were experiencing job or income loss, an estimated 42% faced material hardships because of costs: They were unable to pay their rents, mortgages, or utilities; they were food insecure; they were without medical care. Like RAND, Urban noted that low-income, Black, and Hispanic adults were most affected.

Altogether, the coronavirus pandemic has left people in vulnerable situations. Individuals and families are struggling to cover basic needs. Experiencing high levels of financial challenge, trauma, and stress — deciding whether to pay the bills or put food on the table.

Rent or mortgage. Utilities. Public or private transportation. Child care. Medicine. Personal but essential items. After covering these household expenditures, many adults lack the financial resources needed to buy enough food.

Serviced by Charitable Food Systems

Stretched thin, many individuals who are out of work turn to charitable food systems, such as food banks and pantries, for food to feed themselves and their families — some for the first time. Supplied food items typically include lentils, rice, canned tuna, peanut butter, quinoa and kidney beans, for healthier eating at home.

While some supplied food items may stretch anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks, individuals who are food insecure may find themselves again in need of food—and back at the food pantry.

Helped by Government Nutrition Assistance 

Many have also turned to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

Before the pandemic, approximately one in nine Missouri residents received government assistance for food through SNAP, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

However, SNAP applications and approvals soared with the pandemic. Since March, the Missouri Department of Social Services (DSS) approved hundreds of thousands of people for food stamps through the program.

SNAP benefits help these individuals and families put food on their tables. CBPP data shows that the average SNAP benefit amount is $130 for an individual and $408 for households with children. But, making these amounts last can be challenging, and the COVID-19 crisis adds an additional layer to this challenge.

Pre-coronavirus, for instance, individuals would have found it easier to compare and buy food at the best prices with these benefits. But, during this pandemic, bargain shopping is harder because of food scarcity in urban areas—and fewer supermarkets within close proximity in rural areas. Individuals and families, in turn, find themselves spending more for groceries, and falling short on their nutritional needs for the month.

To better support these households, Missouri has issued the Pandemic Food Stamp/Supplemental Nutritional Program (P-SNAP), which provided households with the maximum food stamp benefit amount based on household size.

Eligible families with school-age children also received a one-time Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), authorized by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) of 2020.

Courageously Navigating an Income and Food Crisis

Social stigmas are attached to both unemployment and food insecurity. But here’s a fact: These things don’t discriminate. They can happen to anyone, at any time. People who are out of work due to COVID-19 are examples.

They had no control over the pandemic’s occurrence and its effect on their ability to afford the basic necessities of life, including food. What they control, though, is their responses—and built up enough courage to seek help from charitable food systems and the government.

That is what these safety nets are for.Follow this link to find a food pantry in your area.