Missouri's hunger rates on the rise, atlas provides comprehensive data on the problem

Sep 27, 2013

Credit Marcus Mo / Flickr

The 2013 edition of the Missouri Hunger Atlas is a 145-page-strong document and, according to one of its main creators, has more than you'd ever want to know about the extent of food insecurity in the Show-Me State. Missouri is in the top ten of states with highest number of food-insecure residents in the nation.

Before the atlas, no one really kept a centralized collection of the different aspects of Missouri’s food insecurity problem. 

“We know a lot more about the dirt in Missouri than we do about hunger,” said Sandy Rikoon, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security at MU who’s trained as an environmental sociologist. Rikoon is one of the main creators of the atlas.

Different departments recorded their own data that tell stories of food insecurity. The Department of Health and Human Services know how many women are in the WIC program, the supplemental nutrition program for mothers and young children. The Department of Elementary and Education know how many low-income students get free and reduced-price lunches. By collecting the data into one atlas, its creators provide a clearer picture of hunger in Missouri. 

The atlas, for example, tells us Missouri had the largest increase in the nation from 2000 to 2010 in the percent of its food-insecure population who have had to regularly skip meals and experience hunger. In 2000, that number was at 2.3 percent of the population. Ten years later, the atlas tells us that number has nearly tripled: 6.7 percent of Missourians (about 400,000 people) have to involuntarily skip meals.

But the atlas is also much more than just jaw-dropping numbers: Using demographic data and USDA criteria, its creators model the most comprehensive, county-by-county data on how many Missourians are food insecure or at-risk of being food insecure, as well as how effectively safety-net agencies are reaching these populations. For example, they model for how many people are eligible for the food-stamp program, but aren’t enrolled. Rikoon and his team of researchers also calculate how many food-insecure Missourians use the food bank to get their food.

Rikoon said the data in his atlas has been used by food banks in different regions to reach more food-insecure residents. The data also help grant writers compose proposals for available funds that can help work on the problem, he said. 

For my full interview with Sandy Rikoon, listen below. We talk about the simple question that propelled Rikoon and his colleagues to compose the atlas, why food insecurity rates are higher in rural areas and why the hunger levels in Missouri would be much higher if the food-stamp program was cut.