MARTINSVILLE–Residents of Martinsville don't have "consistent" access to the foods needed for a healthy, active life. That's the finding released in a report by Feeding America, detailing areas of food insecurity.
“Martinsville remains the highest in overall food insecurity in the 26-county, nine-city area that Feeding America Southwest Virginia serves,” said Amanda Allen, the organization’s marketing and communications director.
“Food insecurity” is a lack of consistent access to enough food for a healthy, active life, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Feeding America is a nationwide network of 200 food banks. Through a network of more than 350 partner programs, Feeding America Southwest Virginia distributed enough food to provide 14.6 million meals in 2016.
Feeding America recently released its Map the Meal Gap 2017, its latest report on food insecurity and the cost of food. It's based off of 2015 data as that is the latest information available.
Martinsville’s overall food insecurity rate (for the full population) was 21.8 percent, meaning more than one in five people were food insecure. That’s nearly twice Virginia’s food insecurity rate of 11.2 percent, according to data in the 2017 study.
Martinsville’s 21.8 percent overall population food insecurity rate in the 2017 Map the Meal Gap study is down slightly from 22.6 percent in the 2016 study.
“Additionally, the weekly food budget shortfall per person rose in Martinsville from $16.11 to $16.40,” Allen said, comparing the 2016 and 2017 studies. “This means that food insecure individuals will now find it even more difficult to move themselves to a position of food security.”
Martinsville’s food insecurity rate for children (under 18) was 20.2 percent in the 2017 study. Virginia’s rate was 14.4 percent.
Henry County’s overall population food insecurity rate was 14.1 percent in the 2017 study, compared with 14.9 percent in the 2016 study. The weekly food budget shortfall per person in Henry County rose from $16.20 in the 2016 study to $16.49 in the 2017 study.
Henry County’s food insecurity rate for children (under 18) was 20.4 percent in the 2017 study.
Patrick County’s overall population food insecurity rate was 12.6 percent in the 2017 study, compared with 12.8 percent in the 2016 study. The weekly food budget shortfall per person in Patrick County rose from $17.02 in the 2016 study to $17.48 in the 2017 study.
Patrick County’s food insecurity rate for children (under 18) was 22.2 percent in the 2017 study.
“In Patrick and Henry counties, overall food insecurity did decline slightly from the previous year’s Map the Meal Gap study," Allen said. "However, like Martinsville, the weekly food budget shortfall per person rose in both areas. So, for those already struggling with food insecurity, getting themselves to a position of food security and further stabilizing their lives has become even harder over the past year.”
Farmers' markets, like those in Martinsville, Henry and Patrick counties, help fill in some of the gaps, offering fresh fruits and vegetables at cheaper prices, but those aren't always open. Some, like the one in Stuart, remain open most of the week, but others are just open in Saturdays.
Across the Southwest Virginia region, one in eight people are food insecure, and among children (under 18), one in six are food insecure, according to a news release from Feeding America Southwest Virginia. The national average food insecurity rate across all counties is 14 percent.
“This important research continues to show that Feeding America Southwest Virginia’s mission is critical to the lives of those in our region facing hunger,” Pamela Irvine, Feeding America Southwest Virginia’s president and CEO, said in a statement.
Diana Aviv, CEO of Feeding America, added: “It is disheartening to realize that millions of hardworking, low-income Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to feed themselves and their families at the same time that our economy is showing many signs of improvement, including a substantial decline in the number of people who are unemployed," Feeding America CEO Diana Aviv added. "This study underscores the need for strong federal nutrition programs as well of the importance of charitable food assistance programs, especially the food pantries and meal programs served by the Feeding America network of food banks.”
Among the more than 100 Virginia localities whose data are listed in the 2017 report, those like Martinsville with higher than 20 percent food insecurity rates include Petersburg, 27.8 percent; Danville, 21.5 percent; Richmond 21.3 percent; and Sussex County, 20.2 percent. Among the localities whose data are listed that have the lowest food insecurity rates include Poquoson, 5.7 percent, Fairfax County, 5.3 percent; Prince William County, 6.0 percent; Fauquier County, 6.2 percent; Loudoun County, 4.0 percent; Frederick County, 6.6 percent; and Powhatan County, 6.9 percent.
Data is not listed for several of Virginia’s more than 130 cities and counties.
In Martinsville, local nonprofit groups have noticed more requests for help with food than in prior years.
“With the services that Grace Network provides, we have seen a shift from financial assistance to more food assistance in the past two years," said Tracy Hinchcliff, the organization's executive director.
“The financial assistance we provide for those about to be evicted or have their power cut off has decreased slightly about 10 percent in the last two years," she added, "but we have seen about a 10-15 percent increase in food assistance. We have been a bit perplexed about that shift. Many of our clients are elderly and disabled and traditionally they don’t receive as much SNAP or food assistance from Social Services as much as a family with children. That could explain some of the shift.”
An official with the Henry County-Martinsville Department of Social Services could not be reached for comment about the food insecurity report.
Paul Collins reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org