PART 1: ‘It truly can be any one of us’: Missourians are food insecure all over the state

When it comes to food insecurity in Missouri, there is no single story. Instead, the narratives are as sweeping and complex as the regions that produce them.

In the peach and apple orchards east of Kansas City, migrant farmworkers pick fruit — around them, no grocery stores exist for over 20 miles in any direction. Inside the city, one of the longest-lasting black-owned grocery stores in the country shuttered in May after nearly 51 years, leaving the neighborhood without the ease and proximity it provided. Near the top of the Bootheel, in Sikeston, seniors seek résumé-building assistance from the local job center; they’re going back to work so they can make ends meet.

The busboys, waiters and housekeepers who keep plates heaping and floors sleek during Branson’s bustling tourism season live in extended-stay motels without kitchens, stuck in cycles of seasonal and low wages. In the off-months, they’re out of work.

In Columbia, refugees find food through programs private and public. Burmese Christians and relocated Iraqis wait in line at Central Pantry, a grocery-store-style program operated by the local food bank.

They’re not alone; the pantry serves between 9,000 and 10,000 people a month. Young families from Eritrea sign up at the local health department for the Women, Infants, and Children program, or WIC, which provides healthy food and education for pregnant or nursing women and their children up to 5 years old.

At MU, graduate students, international students and even faculty and staff supplement their meals with food from Tiger Pantry, an off-campus storehouse that serves close to 300 families per month. And statewide, about 1 in 6 children live in homes that are food insecure, or without consistent access to healthy food.

It’s a simple topic, food, but a single meal holds worlds.

Yet in Missouri, the struggle to keep that meal on the table day in and day out is hidden, often an invisible experience. Jen Wood, research and development officer at the Southeast Missouri Food Bank, meets people regularly who either don’t know or don’t believe that so many locals struggle to keep food, especially healthy food, in the fridge.

“A lot of people don’t see that there’s hunger right there in the community,” Wood said. “They see all this farmland, and so they think there’s plenty to eat.”

But food insecurity is part of Missouri’s — and the country’s — history. And although state rates have dipped below recession-level highs in the past few years, they haven’t returned to numbers from the mid-’90s, when the government began collecting this data. According to most recent estimates, about 13% of Missouri households are food insecure.

What is food insecurity?

Although the two are sometimes used interchangeably, food insecurity is not hunger, and hunger is not food insecurity. Food insecurity is more like poverty through the lens of food.

In a food secure home, everyone can access “enough food for an active, healthy life,” according to the USDA. That means each person can always acquire safe, nutritious food in a way that’s “socially acceptable,” like buying it from a grocery store or farmers market. When a home becomes food insecure, the people within it can’t always get to that food, either because it’s unavailable or inaccessible.

The U.S. Census Bureau first measured food insecurity in the U.S. in 1995. Those early surveys included “hunger” language, organizing people into categories like “food insecure without hunger” or “food insecure with severe hunger.”

In 2006, the USDA removed that language from the lexicon, noting that hunger — a physical discomfort caused by not eating — may be, but isn’t always, a consequence of food insecurity. For example, people may not be able to afford healthy food, but they’re still able to scrape meals together.

On the other hand, “everyone may have experienced hunger at some point,” said Chase Wyckwood, volunteer engagement coordinator for The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri.

“Food insecurity is alluding to the complexities of how someone becomes hungry,” he said. “What are the factors for it societally or systemically, culturally? How did this person arrive at hunger? That’s, I think, what food insecurity discusses.”

That conversation is equally complicated. The answers include moments — an unexpected expense, the loss of a job or a surprise medical bill — and systems, like generational poverty and underemployment. When food bankers and researchers try to explain “why,” their responses require a lot of commas.

“Income disparities, stagnant wages, cost of health care, cost of housing,” Darren Chapman, a graduate researcher at MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security, said. “These are larger systems in place that are really driving hunger.”

At the end of the day, it’s about a lack of resources. For some families, the problem is availability. People in Missouri’s most rural communities or urban neighborhoods may live in a food desert — an area without healthy food providers like grocery stores or supermarkets.

More than 1 in 4 Missourians have low access to these businesses, according to the most recent version of the USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas; for city-dwellers, that’s more than 1 mile away, and in rural areas, it’s more than 10 miles away.

But even if healthy options exist nearby, many people — whether they’re born into poverty or thrust into it — can’t access them. Some don’t have the car, or the gas money, to get there. Others lack a place to store fresh food. More than 1 in 10 families served by the Southeast Missouri Food Bank don’t have access to a fridge.

Still, others pit one bill against the next; once they’ve paid for their rent and utilities, prescriptions and other necessities, there’s not much left for food that isn’t high-calorie, fast or processed. For one adult making the minimum wage in Missouri — $8.60 per hour as of January, about $2.50 less than what’s considered a “living wage” — the trade-offs can be especially difficult.

For them, eating food is like eating money.

“You can really reduce your intake and survive, but you need a place to live, and if you’re going to work, you need to get to work. ... If you’re going to cut corners, (food’s) the one you cut first,” said Sandy Rikoon, director of MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security. It’s a little more “pliable.”

“You've gotta eat something,” Rikoon said, “but you can skip meals and you can go hungry.”

Specific groups navigate their own woes. Seniors, for example, are the fastest-growing population to experience food insecurity, according to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks.

March report released by the state health department estimated that 170,000 — or about 1 in 8 — Missouri seniors were food insecure in 2015. A fixed income, lack of social support, inadequate transportation, physical limitations and other health care problems compound to make these aging generations vulnerable.

About 20% of the people who use the Central Pantry in Columbia are seniors, Sean Ross, who manages the pantry, said.

“There’s a subgroup of (seniors) who are 70 or older, mostly women, because the women of that generation live longer,” Ross said. “Also, they didn’t work as much, so their social security benefits are pretty piddly.”

Many eligible seniors don’t apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps, often because of stigma, lack of knowledge of how the system works and difficulty completing an application.

In Missouri, only 57 out of every 100 adults who are 60 years or older and living in poverty actually participate in SNAP, according to America’s Health Rankings. Compared to most other states, Missouri ranks pretty low; in the U.S. as a whole, that number is more than 80.

Along with seniors, other vulnerable populations include migrant farmworkers, refugees, people with mental and physical disabilities, veterans and college students. In the food bank world, there’s a saying: “Once you’ve seen one food bank, you’ve seen one food bank.” The same adage applies to each person’s experience of food insecurity — especially when it comes to the “how” and “why.”

“It’s very challenging to put (the reasons) in a box,” Wyckwood said. He uses his role, in part, to teach people that “it’s not just one thing. It’s not just one cause.”

Ultimately, every person, every family, has a different story — a different reason, a different consequence. For some, the experience of food insecurity is chronic; for many, it’s occasional or episodic. At the Central Pantry in Columbia, 40% of the families it serves only attend three times per year or fewer, according to Eric Maly, director of programs at The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri.

Complicating the narrative around who is food insecure, and why, is top-of-the-mind for Maly and his colleagues. When words like “hunger” conjure up images of distended bellies in a foreign land, there’s plenty of modern, local nuance to explore.

“A lot of people in the general public have a perception of what someone who is food insecure looks like, and that perception just isn’t true,” said Lindsay Young Lopez, executive director of The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri.

The pantry in Columbia brings in all kinds.

“We’re serving the people who find themselves in a circumstance where they have a job loss that’s unexpected or a medical diagnosis, a divorce, the death of a spouse, and any one of those situations where someone experiences that sudden loss of something can lead them to a place where they find themselves being the one in need,” she said.

“It truly can be any one of us.”

Who’s doing something about it?

Public and private programs alike offer emergency and supplemental food to help people keep meals on the table. In the small town of Hayti, just across the Mississippi River from Tennessee, Angela Fields’ family uses both.

Her two daughters’ birthdays are one day apart. They’re 4 and 11 this year, and for their joint party they shared one cake, which Fields purchased from the local Hays grocery store using food stamps. The cake was marbled because her middle child, a boy, doesn’t like chocolate.

Keeping food in the fridge and on the table requires the same careful planning and compromise from Fields — a little bit of this, a little bit of that. She’s good at making food last as long as it can, and with the help of local food pantries and federal assistance, there’s always something to eat.

“We don’t go without food,” she said, and her approach is methodical. On the 22nd of the month, she receives a SNAP allotment from the government — usually around $500. That windfall keeps them going until the second Tuesday, when she’ll wait in line with sometimes 100, 200 people at her daughter’s elementary school to receive food from the mobile pantry it hosts every month. She’ll make that food last until the fourth Wednesday of the month, when she’ll attend the mobile pantry at her church. She volunteers there, too, helping carry boxes of food to others in her community who’ve shown up for it. Serving others — especially people on the margin — is a lesson she teaches to her children.

“I tell them not to be mean to anybody,” she said. “I tell them, 'If someone looks like they’re struggling with something, go help them.'”

Fields is 29, with a high school diploma and three kids. She works as a home health aide, making $9 an hour. Her husband works the evening shift at the snack bar of Lady Luck Casino in nearby Caruthersville. He makes $9.50 an hour. They just finished paying off their house in February.

The county in which they live, Pemiscot, has the highest rate of food insecurity in Missouri — nearly 1 in 4 people, according to the most recent Map the Meal Gap study.

The “face of hunger” in Missouri is a myth; still, when you consider demographics, there are patterns.

According to a state-specific 2014 study by Feeding America, people who receive food from Missouri’s six food banks are most likely to be white, though the percentage of black Missourians who do so is disproportionately high. If they’re adults, they tend to be between 30 and 49 years old and educated at least through high school. They live in a home, like a house or apartment. In the past year, someone living in the house may have had a job but might not be working right now.

As is true for many Missouri families that struggle to keep food on the table, the programs that feed them face daily obstacles that are multidimensional and plenty; they come in forms material and intangible.

At the federal level, the government funds SNAP and the WIC program. Both provide a monthly food stipend to low-income families, though their eligibility requirements differ, as do their restrictions on which foods the family can buy.

For example, the income requirements for SNAP are more strict than those for WIC, but SNAP allows people to purchase a wider selection of foods.

When it comes to a family’s on-the-ground experiences — like shopping for groceries — the programs work differently, too.

In Missouri, SNAP participants like Fields receive a debit-like card with which to pay for groceries. WIC participants, however, receive large green checks; one for produce, and one for other staples like dairy and grains. That means if a family receives an allowance from both WIC and SNAP, it might have to make three different transactions using an assortment of cards and checks at the grocery store.

“It’s not a discreet or quiet process,” said Erin Harris, WIC supervisor at the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health & Human Services.

These two don’t come close to exhausting the list of USDA programs. The others address different communities: schools, seniors, families with children, Native Americans and farmers markets.

Private assistance includes the food bank network and its partner agencies, like food pantries, along with unrelated nonprofits, religious communities and other groups. As the federal assistance world brims with acronyms, the terms in the private arena are easily confused. Often, people don’t know the difference between a food bank and a food pantry, according to Wood, with the Southeast Missouri Food Bank.

Lopez explains it like this: A food bank is the wholesaler, while a food pantry, like the two Fields attends, is the retailer. In other words, the food bank amasses and distributes food to food pantries and other partner agencies like schools and churches, and those places give the food directly to people who need it.

Managing the public’s understanding is one matter. The food banking industry is rife with other challenges.

First, there’s securing the same resources the people they serve often lack: food and money. If the food bank operates in a high-poverty region, like the one in which Fields lives, that’s particularly hard; food banks can only solicit donations from people within their service area, Wood said.

Then, there’s procuring the right sorts of food. Healthy food is best, but it’s not always shelf-stable and can be expensive to buy, store and transport.

There’s also getting the food to the people who need it, whether by truck, pantry, box or backpack (a method used to ensure kids can eat on the weekends). And, there’s navigating the donations and donors themselves, who amid their generosity may be uninformed about who is food insecure and why.

The food bank in Columbia receives all kinds of food from drives — from totes of in-date, canned vegetables to individual packets of Saltine crackers and condiments. When sifting through the mélange, Maly, director of programs, considers how a person shopping at a pantry might feel to come across food that someone else clearly didn’t want.

He’s reticent to judge. Still, he said, when people donate unhealthy, unhelpful or out-of-date foods, it seems it “normalizes treating people like a second class.”

The “othering” of people who need food assistance isn’t new, according to Chapman, from MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security. The way people think about food security, he said, harks back to the philosophical underpinnings of the country: individuality and meritocracy, or the putting-on-a-pedestal of self-reliant folk who earn what they need.

It’s the typical plot of a Horatio Alger story, one in which a protagonist who begins in rags works his way to riches. In short, it’s the American dream.

“I am the captain of my ship, so to say, and if I work hard and I do my job, good things will come to me,” Chapman said.

The problem is, for Fields and many others, the journey isn’t so simple. People don’t always understand why someone might go to a local pantry for food, Fields said, but she’s resolute in her response: “Every answer is, ‘Because people need help.’”