Food insecurity on the rise in the heartland

May 29, 2024, 10 a.m. ·

Cans of food being donated
Bins of food that will be distributed. (Photo by Erica Hunzinger, Harvest Public Media)

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More people in Nebraska are waking up hungry, according to a recent report released by “Feeding America,” the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization. Nebraska Public Media’s Dale Johnson talked with Stephanie Sullivan of the Food Bank for the Heartland about “Map the Meal Gap 2024,” the only study that provides local estimates of food insecurity.

DALE JOHNSON: One out of every seven people in Nebraska may not know from where their next meal will come. That's about 268,000 men, women and children, almost equal to the populations of Grand Island, North Platte, Scottsbluff, Columbus, Kearney, Hastings, Bellevue, McCook and Fremont, combined. Stephanie, let's start there. Why are so many people seeing food insecurity?

STEPHANIE SULLIVAN: It's a great question. And there's a lot of different factors that go into why food insecurity levels have increased across the heartland. A lot of it has to do with prolonged inflation, with higher costs for everyday essentials like food, childcare, medicine and utilities. People are having to make agonizing choices, like do I get the medication I need to live? Or do I get food at the grocery store? Typically, when a family is dealing with a strange budget, the first thing to be cut from that budget is food. And so with inflation on top of these pandemic aid programs expiring, food costs are outrageous. And people are working one, two or three jobs, and they still cannot afford to go to the grocery store and get the essential nutrients that they need. On top of that, while the pandemic aid programs have expired for our neighbors in need they've also expired for the food bank. So we're truly getting hit on both ends where the need has just exponentially increased, but the resources have decreased.

JOHNSON: The food bank of Lincoln and food bank for the Heartland connected 1.3 million people to meals in 2019. This year, food banks are projecting service to nearly 2.7 million people. Talk about the pressures affecting food banks.

SULLIVAN: Food Bank for the Heartland works with 555 network partners. This includes schools, churches, traditional pantries, mobile pantries, emergency shelters. And so all of our network partners are the ones who are working on the frontlines in the fight against hunger. And the latest numbers that we're seeing from Feeding America are not surprising at all. We've been hearing from our network partners for months now that they are seeing more first-time visitors than ever, and longer lines that have exceeded what they saw in the pandemic. This is also coming at a time where people think that the pandemic is now in our rearview mirror. And donations have gone down. And that's also for a different number of factors. We know that with inflation, people don't have that higher discretionary income, right? They can't donate as much as they used to. But on top of that, because people think the pandemic is behind us, they have gone back to their pre-pandemic philanthropic priorities, because they think, you know, the situation is not as bad. But in reality, the situation has never been worse. These are really grim statistics. And we cannot continue to deliver our mission without the support of our community. Now, the wonderful thing is we live in one of the most philanthropic areas in the country. And we know how the heartland community really reaches out to support neighbors in need. And we are just urgently asking for those donations to continue. One dollar can provide three meals for someone in need. And we can't do this life-changing work without our community's help.

JOHNSON: Stephanie, we're always looking for good news, anything in the map, the meal gap 2024 report that we could consider good news?

SULLIVAN: One thing that we're always inspired by is how people are working together with us to support our mission, and to ensure that neighbors have access to nutritious foods. So there's a couple of things that are happening that are already making an impact across the heartland. At the state level, the summer EBT program in Nebraska will help provide children with more consistent access to nutritious food this summer. We are still asking for additional advocacy from our neighbors in need because we need to help our representatives understand the scope of the hunger crisis and how these government policies and programs truly play a vital role in addressing the need. And then at the federal level, the food bank is working to ensure that we have a farm bill that truly doesn't make any cuts to nutrition programs like SNAP and teeth app that are critical in fighting hunger. For every meal provided through Feeding America SNAP can provide nine so it makes it one of the most effective and efficient tools in our fight against hunger.

JOHNSON: And here's what you can do as a Nebraskan and drop an extra canned item inside that barrel or maybe a boxed-food item inside that barrel at your local grocery store or any other effort that may be going on in your community. Stephanie, thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me.

JOHNSON: Stephanie Solomon of the Food Bank of the heartland joining me for a conversation on Nebraska public media. I'm Dale Johnson.