The latest national study of food insecurity shows that the problem of hunger touches nearly 13 percent of the entire population — and almost 22 percent of the children — across the Quad-City region, the River Bend Foodbank's executive director said Monday.
Michael Miller said the Map the Meal Gap 2015 Study found a total of 131,900 people overall are described as "food insecure" within River Bend's 22-county service area, which stretches across five eastern Iowa counties and 17 western Illinois counties. The percentage of those in the region who are food insecure increased slightly from 12.4 percent to 12.9 percent overall. But among children only, the study found that 49,710 children are food insecure, an increase from 20.6 percent to 21.5 percent.
The study, commissioned by Feeding America, was based on statistics from 2009 to 2013 collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, 15.8 percent of the population is food insecure, and the figure is 21.4 percent for children.
Food insecurity is the Agriculture Department's measure of a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life. This is the fifth year for the Map the Meal Gap study. The study, which can be viewed at riverbendfoodbank.org/hunger.htm, breaks down the statistics by states and counties as well as congressional districts.
Miller said the statistics show that hunger is growing in the Quad-City area: 1 in 8 people are food insecure, while 1 in 5 children face the issue of hunger. In Scott County, 22,990 people, or 13.8 percent, are food insecure. In Rock Island County, the numbers are 18,630, or 12.6 percent.
The Meal Gap, which represents the total number of meals missed, increased from 22.19 million to 23.34 million in River Bend's service area, he added.
"People are starting to think we're in some kind of economic recovery," he said, adding that the new data show both the number and percentage of people struggling with hunger increased over last year's study. "This just motivates us to engage the entire community" in the fight against hunger, he added.
"We are constantly working to increase our capacity to close the Meal Gap," he said. "While we were very pleased to increase our distribution to over 7.3 million meals in 2014, food insecurity rates have increased by an even greater amount."
According to Miller, the new leader of the Davenport-based food bank, filling the 23-million-meal gap is a goal within reach.
"The issue of hunger continues to grow, but there is enough food to feed everybody if we can get the entire community engaged," he said.
Filling the gap would mean tripling the number of meals River Bend provides.
"It's not going to take totally doing things differently, but it's going to take growth," Miller said.
Every $1 contributed to River Bend provides five meals.
Miller, who just returned from a Feeding America Network Leadership Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., with 150 fellow food bank leaders, said the network set a goal five years ago of providing 1 billion more meals in eight years.
"We achieved it three years early," he said.
The Map the Meal Gap study is supported by founding sponsor the Howard G. Buffett Foundation as well as the ConAgra Foods Foundation and Nielsen. The lead researcher was Dr. Craig Gundersen, a University of Illinois professor of agricultural and consumer economics, the National Soybean Research Laboratory executive director and a member of Feeding America's technical advisory group.
Miller said the study also looked at food insecurity among those eligible for food stamps, or what is now called SNAP. Nationwide, 43 percent of people experiencing hunger are not eligible for food stamps, he said, adding, "This is the working poor."
In both Iowa and Illinois, 48 percent of those experiencing hunger are not eligible for food stamps. In addition, 26 percent of the hungry nationwide are not eligible for any programs, he said.
"Different people have different opinions about public assistance, but it's helpful to know many of these people do have jobs," he said. "They are trying hard to get out of this, but they need our help."