To see where Idaho is at with food insecurity, people should first understand what food insecurity is.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Low food security is defined as reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet. Very low food security is multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
Across the United States, counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are usually rural. Rural counties make up 91% of the highest rates of overall food insecurity in the United States. Of Idaho’s 44 counties, 75% are considered rural.
The 2021 Map the Meal Gap, a collection of data in map form estimating where the United States will be in terms of food insecurity in the near future, predicts that more than 202,390 Idahoans may experience food insecurity in 2021 due to the pandemic, about 11.3% of the population in the region — which equates to one in nine individuals. Of those, 57,620 are projected to be children. However, due to their income level, more than 53% of those people in Idaho who are food insecure may not qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
According to Map the Meal Gap, Idaho counties with the highest estimated overall food insecurity rate in 2021 are Shoshone (19.6 %), Lewis (17.1 %) and Custer (16.5%), which are all in the north part of the state. Those counties with the estimated highest food insecurity rate for children in 2021 are Shoshone (28.2%), Custer (23.1%) and Benewah (22%), also all up north.
The Idaho Foodbank, an independent nonprofit, distributes food statewide through a network of more than 400 partners including schools, senior centers, food pantries, senior centers, feeding sites, shelters, churches and mobile pantries. Prior to COVID-19, Idaho had been improving in reducing food insecurity, said Jaime Hansen, the director of programs and partnerships for The Idaho Foodbank.
One of the trends The Idaho Foodbank has seen within the past two years is the volume of food needed by individuals, Hansen said.
“Instead of needing food for 3-5 days, we saw more individuals needing meals for 5-7 days,” she said.
When asked about misconceptions about food insecurity, Hansen laughed. She wished she had a magic wand to wave and dispel notions that plague beliefs around food insecurity.
“We think of hunger and people dealing with it as helpless but we’re seeing a lot of these people have jobs,” Hansen said. “People have a hard time keeping up. Rent, medical expenses … those things come first and people don’t have money for food.”
In addition, The Idaho Foodbank is also mindful of the health benefits of the food it distributes. This is in line with what head of the USDA, Tom Vilsack, plans to focus on, which is not only food insecurity but nutrition insecurity.
“Eighty percent of [Idaho Foodbank’s] food is nutritious,” Hansen said. “It’s not just blue Mountain Dew that people are getting rid of. People are donating healthy, good food.”
One cog in the machine in battling food and nutrition insecurity locally is City of Good, a nonprofit created to help bring food from farmers to area restaurants to feed kids in the Boise School District, outfitting them with weekend fuel kits that produce six meals for an entire weekend.
“We’re not just about food insecurity but about a ‘Circle of Good’ that we’re supporting a local food system — kids are easier to teach,” said Britt Udesen, executive director for City of Good. And, “it’s easier to teach kids about where the food they’re eating comes from. … The great thing about Idaho is that people want to support each other.”
City of Good has partnered with The Idaho Foodbank to make sure not to repeat efforts made by other nonprofits or food pantries. Kris Komori, a board member for City of Good and co-owner of Kin, said it’s not just an effort to put food on the table but to teach about the “Circle of Good.”
“We want to provide education on local food,” Komori said. “We want to educate on food waste as well. That’s such a big issue that you see in the restaurant industry.”
“It’s not just about avoiding starvation — it’s also about joy and dignity,” Udesen said. “It’s also about sustainability; we get to provide meals that support an environmentally sustainable community. That’s a really important thing that we want to remind (people about and) should be at the center of all of our decisions.”
The Associated Press reported on Nov. 10 that food banks across the United States are struggling to feed those in need due to supply chain disruptions, lower inventory, labor shortages and increasing prices of groceries. Hansen said The Idaho Foodbank is always looking for donations. She sees strength in asking for help.
“How do we make it a sign of strength to ask for help,” she said. “How do we flip the script and say asking for help is brave?”