Ground Level

Hunger in Minnesota

Julie Siple — MPR News

How big of a problem is hunger in Minnesota?

According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 10.5 percent of Minnesota households are food insecure. That means they sometimes struggle to get enough nutritious food for a healthy lifestyle.

That’s below the national average, but relief groups are concerned because hunger is on the rise in the state.

Nationally, more than 50 million Americans lived in food insecure homes in 2009. That includes 17 million children.

What’s it mean to be hungry in Minnesota?

Hunger can be hard to recognize in Minnesota. It’s not a visible problem, marked by bloated bellies or hollow faces.

Instead, it can mean having insufficient money to buy enough food. It can mean skipping meals so children can eat. It can mean buying cheap, less nutritious food to get enough calories. In the most severe cases, it means going at least a whole day without eating.

The U.S. government doesn’t measure hunger. Instead, it measures food insecurity by conducting an annual survey of a random sample of American households, asking questions about people’s ability to put food on the table. Food insecurity reports are the closest thing we have to an official hunger count.

Where do people get help?

Many people turn first to the emergency food system. Food banks (organizations that procure and store the food), food shelves (which distribute the food to hungry Minnesotans) and hot meal programs are the main providers of emergency food.

Government-funded programs help feed many Minnesotans. More than 478,000 Minnesotans receive food stamps, now called Food Support in Minnesota. The Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC) program provides food help for pregnant women, new mothers and their children. Federal commodity programs also provide food.

Schools play an essential role, with federally-funded lunch for low-income kids, a growing breakfast program, and a summer food program.

Finally, many Minnesotans find help in families and friends.

What are the consequences of hunger?

A growing body of research finds hungry children learn less, receive lower math scores, and are more likely to repeat a grade. Children living in food insecure homes are also more likely to be hospitalized due to illness.

Recent research finds a link between food insecurity and developmental delays in very young children. In older children, some research suggests hungry children have increased risk of behavior problems and absenteeism.

Maternal depression and maternal anxiety have also been linked to food insecurity.

Researchers are careful to control for other factors – income, socio-demographic characteristics, mental health history, for example, -- but it can be hard to tease out the effects of hunger.

What is controversial in the discussion about hunger?

Some advocates for the hungry say hungry Americans are undercounted, particularly because the government doesn’t include the homeless in their official count. Other critics say hunger is exaggerated by advocates and the media, pointing out that for most people it’s an episodic, not chronic, condition.

The biggest disagreements, however, come over how to respond to hunger. How much should the government spend on food programs and safety nets? What role should charities play? The debates over these questions have changed with the politics and economics of the country.