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Food insecurity rates increased much faster in rural areas than urban ones last year, something  food policy experts attribute to rising costs of living and roll backs of pandemic-era federal programs.

The percentage of rural households experiencing food insecurity grew by 4 points in 2022 to 15%. Metropolitan households experiencing food insecurity grew by 2 points to 12%. 

The rate of increase was nearly two-thirds greater in rural areas than in metropolitan ones, according to data from Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).

The increase was expected because of the end of pandemic-era nutrition program expansions. But the spike surprised staff at the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). 

“The difference between metro and nonmetro areas is even bigger than it was before [the pandemic],” Geri Henchy, FRAC’s director of nutrition policy, told the Daily Yonder. 

The increasing gap between rural and urban food insecurity suggests that rural communities are struggling to bounce back from pandemic challenges more than their urban peers. 

Food insecurity is related to chronic nutrition problems and is defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for everyone in a household to live an active and healthy life.

Data from FNS 2021 showed that food insecurity decreased during the first year of the pandemic as emergency roll outs helped struggling households put food on the table. 

But for many years before the pandemic, a greater share of rural households experienced food insecurity compared to their urban counterparts. The only time metro rates were higher than rural rates was during 2008 and 2009, when the Great Recession made food insecurity increase nationwide. 

From 2014 to 2021, however, food insecurity declined in both rural and urban areas. But when Congress rolled back pandemic-era benefits at the end of 2021, food insecurity rates grew faster in rural communities than urban ones.

Cutting Federal Programs Makes Child Poverty and Food Insecurity Worse

One of the many things pandemic-era benefit programs did was provide all children in public schools with free meals. This program and others like it have been rolled back since April of this year when the Biden administration declared the end of the national pandemic emergency.

“Even if you’re paying [for school meals] at a reduced price, it really adds up,” Henchy said. “If you're a family that's struggling and can’t pay that, then your kids end up being embarrassed at school.”

At the end of 2021, Congress also allowed the expiration of the expanded child tax credit. The credit cut child poverty in half during the first year of the pandemic. But new census data shows that child poverty doubled after the expansions ended. 

“You don’t get the [expanded] child tax credit anymore. You don't get healthy school meals for all anymore,” Henchy said. “Things just started getting harder and we're starting to see more people at the food pantries again, and people are hungry.”

One thing that didn’t revert to former practices with the end of the pandemic provisions  is that the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program permanently changed how they conduct certification appointments. Participants can now attend appointments remotely, something helpful for rural residents who, on average, have less reliable transportation than their urban counterparts.  

“WIC is a really great buffer against the harmful impacts of economic hardship,” but the program is underfunded, Henchy said. 

Congress needs to fully fund WIC in the continuing resolution that needs to pass by November 17 to stave off a government shutdown, she said. If Congress can’t provide adequate funds, WIC is “going to be forced to turn people away,” she said.

“WIC has such a long history of bipartisan support.  It's just kind of stunning that suddenly this relatively small group of people in Congress can oppose fully funding WIC when everyone else wants to take care of it.”

SNAP Cuts and Higher Cost of Living Exacerbate Food Insecurity

When the federal pandemic emergency declaration ended, Congress also reinstated work requirements for people receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. After three months of consecutive benefits, able-bodied adults without dependents must work 80 hours per month to continue receiving SNAP. These work requirements may be particularly challenging for rural residents who have to travel longer distances to get to work. 

“We know that people are trying to find a job,” Henchy said. “The thing is that there aren't any jobs [in rural areas]. If you impose a work requirement like that in a situation where there just aren't enough jobs, what you are saying to people is that they're not gonna be able to stay on SNAP no matter what they do.”

Henchy also suggested that increases in cost of living and associated supply chain issues disproportionately hurt rural communities because they deal with both longer distances to grocery stores and higher fuel prices

Henchy said that the higher number of rural residents who receive SNAP and the transportation challenges exacerbated by higher costs of living can make rural areas more vulnerable to economic hardships. 

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