A young Seattle woman came out of a restaurant the other day carrying a very substantial half of a sandwich in a to-go box but uncertain if it would really be eaten if she took it back to her hotel room in Oregon. She walked past a middle-aged woman and man who were asking for help, then turned back and offered the sandwich. The warm words and smiles of gratitude made an impression on her.
The incident is a fairly public reflection of the usually private reality of hunger and poverty, discussed nationally in a recent report, Map the Meal Gap 2011. "Food insecurity" can be a hard concept in a land of general plenty, but it's real. Millions of people do worry about having enough money for meals that support a healthy lifestyle — or even enough to just put food on the table for themselves or their family at times. So, to stretch their dollars, they often make the choice for cheaper, high-calorie or high-fat products, hoping that later they will be able to provide what they know would be a healthier diet.
The report, from Feeding America (a network of 200 food banks across the country), looks at meal costs, unemployment, and other factors to provide estimates in all U.S. counties of food insecurity amid rising food costs and a weak economy. Across Washington state, the study found an estimated 14.8 percent of people suffering from food insecurity, which is a little better than the national average of 16 percent for all counties in 2009 (the latest year for which relevant data was available).
In Washington state and across the nation, rural counties have some of the highest rates of stress about food availability and costs, the study noted; in Cowlitz and Grays Harbor counties, 19 percent or more of the population face food insecurity. Kelsey Beck, public policy manager for Western Washington's Food Lifeline, said that, along with a lack of jobs, some rural areas and small towns have relatively high food costs. That's because of such factors as transportation costs, a lack of competition, and, in some cases, relatively little local agriculture.
Compared with the rest of the state and many urban population centers nationally, King County is in relatively good shape, with an estimated 13.4 percent of households suffering food insecurity. But that translates into 249,000 people who are at risk of missing a meal or not being able to afford a healthy one. Neighboring Snohomish (14 percent) and Pierce (15.1 percent) counties contributed another 210,000-plus people to the 953,000 people facing food insecurity statewide.
And Food Lifeline's Beck sees something very regrettable in having King County's 13.4 percent stand out as a good number. A few years ago, when the economy was better, the number here ran in the neighborhood of 9 to 10 percent, she said.
Congressional Republicans are talking about major changes to food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), making it a block grant and stripping away automatic increases that cover rising needs in a down economy. To Beck, the level of difficulty in a place like King County, where many people are doing very well, only underlines the importance of helping when the need is greatest. And she has no doubt of the need. Food Lifeline helps local food banks throughout Western Washington, and the food banks see people who are struggling. "Most people don't choose to wait in a line at a food bank unless they are really needy," she said.