A new study of food insecurity finds some familiar patterns in Kansas. But there are also a few surprises.
Every year when the County Health Rankings are released, they show southeast Kansas and Wyandotte County as having persistent problems with lower average incomes and higher poverty levels. So it should come as no surprise that those same places have a high degree of food insecurity, which is defined as a lack of reliable access to adequate food.
But the county with the highest rate of food insecurity in Kansas, according to a new report from the hunger-relief organization Feeding America, is Geary County, home to Junction City and part of Fort Riley. Second on the list is neighboring Riley County, which is often in the top group of counties in the annual health rankings.
Tina Johnson manages the Geary County Food Pantry, which provides food to about 100 families a week.
“I often hear, ‘If we couldn’t have come here, I don’t know what we were going to do,’” Johnson says.
According to federal statistics for 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, 19.1 percent of Geary County residents are food insecure. That’s up from 17.7 percent the two previous years.
Johnson isn’t sure why the rate is going up, be she suspects two main factors: Prices are rising, especially for housing, and income is relatively stagnant.
“I know housing is very expensive here and in Riley County. I think that has a lot to do with it,” she says. “People are struggling to get groceries, trying to keep a roof over their head. The rent is expensive, and people don’t have that kind of income.”
Johnson says the better-paying jobs in the Junction City area are mainly on the outskirts of town, and many people on the lower end of the economic scale don’t have transportation.
“So they’re working in town at a job making minimum wage, which we know is nothing,” she says. “The water bill has gone up, the electric has gone up, groceries have gone up, gas has gone up. Everything is going up, but what they’re bringing home is remaining the same.”
The “Map the Meal Gap 2016” report from Feeding America says food insecurity exists throughout the country.
Riley County has an 18.5 percent rate of food insecurity. In Wyandotte County it 18.1 percent. The Kansas county with the lowest rate is Grant County, in the southwest part of the state, at 6.5 percent.
Overall, the report says, one in every seven Kansans experiences food insecurity. Among children, the figure is one in five. That translates to nearly 154,000 Kansas children living in food-insecure households. About two-thirds of them are eligible for federal nutrition assistance.
In Missouri, almost one in six residents is food insecure. Jackson County has a 19 percent food insecurity rate. St. Louis County is the highest, at 26.8 percent.
Four counties in the Missouri Bootheel have food insecurity rates higher than 20 percent. St. Charles County has the lowest food insecurity rate in Missouri at 11.2 percent.
Bryan Thompson is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.