Hunger in the Heartland: Food Insecurity in the Show-Me State

Food Insecurity

Hunger in the Heartland: Food Insecurity in the Show-Me State

We already know that Missourians can do without a lot of things. We don’t have to drive the newest cars, and we don’t have to have the latest iPhone. By and large, Show-Me State residents are practical people. They work hard to pay the bills and put a roof over their heads. They stand on their own two feet and do what it takes to provide for their families. But one thing Missourians can’t do without is food. Food insecurity is real, and it’s getting worse. 


Food Insecurity Defined


The USDA Economic Research Service defines food insecurity as being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. This can be caused by an increase in food prices, or a lack of transportation to get to a grocery store. It could also result in someone losing their job and simply being unable to buy the basic necessities. Healthcare and prescription drug costs can often force people to make tough choices as to whether they want to pay for their medication, or eat. 


Missourians and Food Insecurity


No Missourian should go to bed hungry. And yet, the 2020 Missouri Poverty Report tells us that New Hampshire residents have the lowest food insecurity rates in the nation, while those living in New Mexico have the highest. The number of Missourians who are experiencing food insecurity is slightly higher than the national average: 


Food Insecurity


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Missouri has a total population of roughly 6.1 million people. If 12% are food insecure, that’s almost 737,000 of our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family members who aren’t getting enough to eat. That’s the entire populations of Branson, Chillicothe, Clinton, Columbia, Jefferson City, Kirksville, Rolla, Sedalia, Springfield, St. Louis City, and West Plains combined. Let that sink in. 


Where’s the Greatest Food Insecurity in Missouri? 


Poverty and food insecurity go hand in hand, as one might expect. And, as we’ve reported previously, the counties with the highest poverty levels are mostly in rural parts of the state. Those counties are the ones that have lost access to healthcare through hospital closures. Those counties have suffered tremendous economic losses and employment opportunities can be far and few in between. The 2020 Poverty Report pinpoints the areas where Missouri residents are suffering the most: 


Food Insecurity


It’s a scary thought that nearly a quarter of residents in Pemiscot County and St. Louis City have to worry about where their next meal will come from. 


These are staggering figures, considering Missouri is a leader in the nation for food production. According to the Missouri Department of Agriculture, there are more than 95,000 farms in Missouri–that’s 2nd in the nation. We rank 3rd in raising beef cattle, and 4th in growing rice.


Where Can Poor Residents Turn for Help? 


Free and Reduced Lunches


It’s hard for students to concentrate on their academic studies when their stomach is growling. For parents who have children attending Missouri public schools, help is available through the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced lunches to students who meet eligibility criteria based on income.  Signed into law by Missouri’s very own President Harry Truman in 1946, this program can be a huge help to struggling families. In hard-hit Pemiscot County, 89.3% of students were enrolled for free and reduced school lunches, while a whopping 95.1% of students living in St. Louis City were enrolled in the program in 2018, according to the Missouri Hunger Atlas




Food insecure Missourians can also qualify to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, sometimes known as food stamps. The goal of SNAP is to provide nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency. More than 38% of the 16,000 Pemiscot County residents and 31.4% of St. Louis City residents qualified for SNAP. And, it’s important to keep in mind that these figures are from 2018–long before we ever heard of COVID-19. 


The SNAP eligibility requirements are stringent but the benefits can help tremendously in households where there’s food insecurity. For example, a family of four could receive $646 per month in food stamp benefits as long as their gross monthly income didn’t exceed $2790.00.


Share the Harvest


Hunting is a popular sport in the Show-Me State, with one of the most popular being deer hunting. More than 285,000 deer were harvested in 2019. Missouri’s Share the Harvest program helps deer hunters donate surplus venison to the needy. This program is administered by the Conservation Federation of Missouri and the Missouri Department of Conservation. Donated food is then distributed to local food pantries across the state. 


Non-Governmental Sources


Despite government-funded programs such as SNAP and the National School Lunch Program, we still have Missouri residents who aren’t able to get the food they need. Thankfully, we live in a state of generous people, with faith-based institutions, secular nonprofits, civic groups, and individuals stepping up to the plate to help those who are less fortunate. Often these are the best sources of support, because recipients don’t usually have to meet strict income guidelines and go through an application process before they can start receiving the food that they need. This is particularly the case now, when children are out of school and so many people are out of work, struggling to make ends meet.


We Can Do More


Despite the programs already in place, the fact is that some Missourians are still not getting enough to eat. That’s unacceptable. We can and should do more. 


For example, we’d like to see a hunger task force established in every Missouri county committed to eradicating food insecurity. Members should represent a cross-section of the county and should include governmental agency liaisons, faith leaders, civic groups, schools district officials, farmers, business owners, and private individuals. We’d also like to see staff from our state and federal lawmakers taking an active role in these task force meetings. Voters elected them to make a positive difference in the lives of their constituents; this is one way they could do that. 


No Missourian should ever worry about how they will get the food they need. Not a single one. 




OneMissouri is committed to research, education, advocacy, and policy development on behalf of all Missourians. 



Top Graphic Credit: Pixabay


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