Nebraskans have been going hungry at a higher rate than national average, survey found
By Elizabeth Rembert , Food, Energy and Agriculture Reporter Nebraska Public Media, Harvest Public Media
Nov. 2, 2023, 4 p.m. ·
Food insecurity among households in Nebraska is higher than the national average, according to a new survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
More than 12% of Nebraskan households experienced food insecurity over the 2020-2022 reporting period, higher than the national rate of 11.2%. It’s also higher than the average in most of Nebraska’s neighboring states, like Kansas, South Dakota and Colorado.
Eric Savaiano leads the food and nutrition access program at Nebraska Appleseed and said he was disappointed but not surprised to see the higher rates of hunger in Nebraska.
“A lot of the policies we choose to enact don't specifically try to address the low income families in our state,” Savaiano said. “That leads families to struggling over food insecurity.”
He pointed to former Governor Pete Ricketts’ decision to reject millions in pandemic food assistance in 2020 – making Nebraska the first state to refuse the federal benefits – while other states continued sending out the extra benefits through 2023.
“Yes, pandemic programs cost money but we prioritized feeding families,” Savaiano said. “It seems like letting families go hungry is a policy decision that could be solved if we prioritized it.”
Savaiano said making programs more accessible for elderly households through the USDA’s Elderly Simplified Application Program or adopting universal free meals at school could help hungry families, who have told him what food insecurity looks like in their lives.
“It might be skipping meals. It could be choosing between paying your rent and paying for food,” he said.
“For families with kids, the challenge could look like making sure the kid has enough to eat. We've heard of families trading between parents which days they get to eat, which is really heartbreaking and disturbing.”
Food assistance policies
State Sen. Jen Day from Omaha worked to expand participation for food assistance programs in the last legislative session. Her bill – which was adopted as an amendment – expanded eligibility for federal food assistance from 135% to 185% of the federal poverty level.
That expansion will expire in September 2025, but is keeping 10,000 families on food assistance in the meantime.
“When I see an issue in the basic needs of my constituents, I know that needs to be my priority,” Day said. “This is food we’re talking about. If Nebraskans are going hungry, that’s a failure on lawmakers.”
The report shows there’s more work to be done in Nebraska, Day said, especially as she hears about how higher expenses for housing, medical care and more are cutting into grocery budgets.
“Food insecurity is a growing problem,” Day said. “I'm hoping [these numbers] will be sobering for many lawmakers and help them realize we have a long way to go in actually resolving some of the major pieces of this problem.”
Day and Savaiano said they’ll push Governor Jim Pillen and Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services to adopt a summer food program for children who qualify for free and reduced lunches during the school year.
The federal program would cost Nebraska about $300,000 in administrative costs according to a review by Nebraska Appleseed, but deliver around $18 million in benefits to about 150,000 students.