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A recent study found that food insecurity still heavily impacts Eastern Kentucky counties more than the rest of the state, and the problem could worsen due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eastern Kentucky continues to be hardest-hit by food insecurity

Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, released a study that found Eastern Kentucky counties were still disproportionately impacted by food insecurity, despite Kentucky’s rates being at their lowest in 2018, after nearly 10 years. Food insecurity is a measure defined as lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Micheal Halligan, CEO of God’s Pantry Food Bank, is the regional food bank member for Feeding Kentucky, which is under Feeding America. God’s Pantry Food Bank has provided hunger relief services for 65 years and now serves 50 counties in central and Eastern Kentucky.

Halligan said Eastern Kentucky continues to struggle more with food insecurity than the rest of the state because its recovery from the 2008 economic crisis has been slower and more difficult than many other areas in the state and country.

“Particularly in Eastern Kentucky, we have not seen the same kind of recovery that we’ve seen elsewhere in the country,” Halligan said. “Jobs lost over the past decade have not necessarily been replaced, and for those jobs that have been replaced, generally speaking, they’re replaced at a lower wage with less benefits than people previously had. It’s really an economic issue more than anything else. It’s an inability for folks who find themselves in a different economic circumstance than they were in before to be able to access the nutritious food that they need to be able to lead a healthy life.”

The counties of Harlan, Bell, Magoffin, Breathitt, Clay and Wolfe had the highest rates of food insecurity in the region, and among the highest in the state, with each exceeding 24 percent of their populations. An estimated 26,590 people in the six counties were considered “food insecure” in 2018.

Leslie, Owsley, Knott, Floyd, Letcher, Martin and Perry saw rates that ranged from nearly 21 percent to nearly 24 percent. More than 28,000 people were considered “food insecure” in these seven counties.

Johnson, Morgan, Lawrence and Pike saw some of the lowest rates in the region, between 19-20 percent. In these four counties, nearly 22,000 people were considered “food insecure.”

All it takes, Halligan said, is one “unfortunate circumstance,” like losing a loved one or unexpected medical expenses, for many people to become food insecure.

“Oftentimes, people are one unfortunate circumstance from becoming food insecure, from them finding themselves not being able to put a meal on the table when they need to eat,” Halligan said. “Sometimes it’s the loss of a loved one, sometimes it’s the loss of a job, sometimes it’s a temporary furlough, sometimes it’s unexpected medical expenses, and I think all of those different factors can place an individual into a food insecure situation.”

Although Kentucky’s overall unemployment rates decreased over the past decade, unemployment in Eastern Kentucky still remained higher than other parts of the state. The higher rates of unemployment, Halligan said, caused food insecurity to remain an ongoing problem throughout the region.

“Opportunity for jobs is often a way to recover from that food insecurity, and I think what we have seen is, prior to the pandemic, unemployment across the commonwealth was pretty low,” Halligan said. “Unemployment was higher in more rural areas where there are less jobs available, and the jobs that are available tend to be lower-wage jobs that make it difficult to make ends meet. I think what you see in Eastern Kentucky is a function of the kinds of jobs that tend to be available, versus elsewhere in the commonwealth.”

Food insecurity is often linked to an increased risk of diabetes and hypertension, but Halligan said that it is, ironically, also linked to an increased risk of obesity.

“What tends to happen physiologically in the human body is when you’re not eating, you’re losing muscle mass,” Halligan said. “When you then have access to food for a short period of time and you consume food, many times you are adding fat, rather than muscle mass. You go through this complex cycle of gaining weight and losing weight, and the weight that you’re losing is muscle mass and the weight that you’re gaining is more fat. So you can be hungry and obese at the same time.”

COVID-19 could make the problem worse

In Kentucky statewide, an estimated 662,660 people were considered “food insecure” in 2018, or about 14.8 percent of the state’s population, and Kentucky had the eighth highest food insecurity rate in the country.

However, as Feeding America found in its recent study, the COVID-19 pandemic within the past three months could wipe out that progress and potentially cause an additional 234,000 people across the state to become food insecure. In total across the country, the pandemic could cause the number of food insecure people to nearly double, from more than 37 million in 2018 to more than 54 million in 2020.

This is due to closure orders that Kentucky and many other states across the country made in order to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which caused a massive increase in unemployment throughout the country.

Feeding Kentucky Executive Director Tamara Sandberg said in a statement that one in seven Kentuckians were already considered “food insecure” before the pandemic started.

“It is unacceptable that even before the pandemic struck, one in seven Kentuckians did not always know where their next meal would come from,” Sandberg said. “Making matters worse is that many of these individuals do not qualify for federal nutrition assistance programs. They have nowhere else to turn but the charitable food sector, which is struggling to keep pace with the need for food assistance. We call on partners in government, business, education, agricultural and faith-based sectors to continue working to close the meal gap and end hunger in Kentucky.”

For Eastern Kentucky, unemployment rates during the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic (from March to April 2020) more than tripled from where they were in April 2019, only one year earlier. This was the case for Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin, Martin, Perry and Pike, among many other counties in the region.

God’s Pantry Food Bank, Halligan said, saw a 33 percent increase in demand during the first week of the pandemic, after the state’s closure orders began. Although demand has leveled off a little since then, the organization continues to see a 20 percent overall increase in demand across their 50-county service area.

“I think what we’ve seen across the commonwealth in the last 3 months has been a significant increase in unemployment, and what we hope is that recovery will come quickly and we hope that that recovery be available to all,” Halligan said. “But we know that recovery is slower in Eastern Kentucky due to the lack of kinds of jobs that help people to really be able to balance their budget.”

A potentially worse economic situation could cause many Eastern Kentuckians to make difficult choices on how they need to spend their money, Halligan said, like choosing between paying for medical expenses, transportation costs or food, for example.

“Oftentimes, food is an area where people will cut back in order to make their budgets work,” Halligan said. “They will dilute milk with water, they will thin their soup, they will eat half a sandwich rather than a whole sandwich, those kinds of things, in order to stretch their dollars a little bit further. And in times of a pandemic, when people are social distancing and when people are at home and staying healthy at home, it just complicates that whole dynamic and makes food that much more important.”

While food insecurity is an ongoing problem that many in Eastern Kentucky face, Halligan offered ways that everyday people can help those in need. He said the first thing that people can do is recognize that the problem exists.

“Hunger is often something that’s hidden from view,” Halligan said. “People who are hungry don’t necessarily want to ask. There are stigmas associated with hunger. The first thing that people can do is recognize that the issue exists, to understand that their next-door neighbor may not have a meal to put on their table.”

He encouraged people to volunteer with a local food pantry or shelter and to donate if they are unable to volunteer, whether to God’s Pantry Food Bank or to any other local food pantry in order to help them continue providing hunger relief to those in need.

“For those interested in advocating, be aware of local, state and federal policy that creates disparity, that puts people at risk for being hungry, and speak to officials, whether that be local, state or federal officials, on policies that can help eliminate hunger and help make sure that good nutrition is available to everyone who needs it,” Halligan said.

For more information on God’s Pantry Food Bank, call, (859) 255-6592, or visit, www.godspantry.org.

If you or someone you know needs emergency hunger relief assistance, visit, www.godspantry.org, and click on “Find Help” to find a food pantry or meal program in your county.

The Feeding America study, titled “Map the Meal Gap,” used the most recent data from the USDA and Census Bureau. For more information on the study, visit, http://map.feedingamerica.org.

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