The Challenges of Rural Hunger


They say if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. 

One would assume the old adage applies to farmers in America’s rural communities, but the bitter irony that few are aware of is that these communities are often the hardest hit by hunger and food insecurity.

During the 20th century, farming practices have rapidly transformed. Communities that would quite literally reap the benefits of what they sow through local family farms face a new bureaucracy in the farming sphere and now ship their crops away to be processed, stored and distributed within the nationwide food industry.

The fruits of their labor return in the form of nutritionally-void, packaged snacks, and any food fresh enough to be deemed as healthy is more expensive than ever.

It is easy to discuss the dynamics and pitfalls of the farm industry in general, but these institutional problems have very real and pointed consequences on the families in these rural communities. Let’s consider the daily implications of this crisis in these communities.

What is food security?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food security as access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.

Food security sounds simple enough and frankly, is a simple enough concept to make it a basic right for families in the United States, especially those that make a living from producing food.

With this in mind, consider the following:

  • 12.7 percent of United States households are food insecure.
  • Black and Hispanic-headed households had food insecurity rates that were substantially higher than the national average.
  • 15.4 percent of households in rural areas experienced food insecurity in 2015, a figure that is 3 percent higher than the average metropolitan household.

(Information provided by the USDA)

For a more thorough look at the state of food insecurity in Wisconsin, see the results of our extensive hunger study.

Why are rural communities different than the rest of the U.S.?

While food insecurity is a universally unacceptable aspect of poverty nationwide, rural communities–especially minority demographics in those communities–face a particularly difficult challenge. Without compact urban centers with accessible grocery stores, the members of rural communities may find themselves 10 or more miles from access to fresh, farm-grown food, even when it’s grown in their backyards. These food deserts–as they have been dubbed–force families to buy the food available to them at gas stations and convenience stores, leading to rampant obesity that often deludes the public into thinking there isn’t a problem.

According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), “Residents who live in food deserts—neighborhoods with few or limited access to healthy food sources—are more likely to be people of color.” In addition, CAP reported that residents of food deserts face higher unemployment, lower education levels and lower incomes.

The faces of rural hunger

This disparity is far more than a series of statistics or reports on geographic and demographic factors. Each of the 15.8 million families facing food insecurity daily faces the health challenges of a poor diet, or depends on assistance from benefit programs like FoodShare or locations like Second Harvest Food Bank. As of last month, 13.3 percent of the people in Wisconsin received FoodShare benefits to assist with getting healthy food on the table (as provided by Wisconsin Department of Health Services). Programs like these take the pressure off families like those featured in our Hunger Stories and help them save money to keep on the lights and provide other daily necessities.  

Get involved and with just a few minutes of your day, you too can help battle rural food insecurity. For more details on how the Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin works to solve rural hunger in our area, check out our cover story "Hunger in Rural Wisconsin" from our May 2015 edition of The Inside SCOOP. 


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