Rural areas make up a disproportionate share of the counties where residents have high levels of food insecurity, according to a national hunger-relief organization.
“People who live in rural areas often face hunger at higher rates, in part because of the unique challenges living remotely presents,” wrote Feeding America. “These challenges include an increased likelihood of food deserts with the nearest food pantry or food bank potentially hours away, job opportunities that are more concentrated in low-wage industries, and higher rates of unemployment and underemployment.”
The problem was getting better in 2019. According to Feeding America, in a report released in February 2020, only 1 in 10 Americans faced food insecurity, down from 1 in 9 the previous year. But the trend reversed, and according to the Food Research and Action Council, during the Covid-19 pandemic, one in four American adults reported having food insecurity.
“Prior to Covid-19, even in the midst of a strong economy with a record streak of job growth and low unemployment rates, in 2018 nearly 8 million (four percent) American adults reported that members of their households sometimes or often did not have enough to eat. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (collected April 23, 2020, through July 21, 2020), during Covid-19, that number has surged to 26–29 million, or 11% of adults,” wrote economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, of Northwestern University, in the FRAC report “Not Enough to Eat: Covid-19 Deepens America’s Hunger Crisis.”
Her research found that food insecurity was found most often in households without a college education, and in households with children, as well as among Black and Latinx communities.
“What is more surprising is the extent of hunger. It’s not just the poorest families who are facing this struggle; among those who don’t have enough to eat, 1 in 4 have usual incomes above $50,000 per year,” Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.
During this crisis, many have become unemployed, others who have kept their jobs have seen their earnings decrease due to reduced hours, and others are expecting to lose earnings in the next month. The economic shocks they have experienced have pushed many into hunger — potentially for the first time.”
According to a report by Feeding America in May 2020, in Burke County, North Dakota, food insecurity rose by 157%. In fact, its research showed that food insecurity in North Dakota as a state rose by 77%.
And three of the top five counties with the largest percentage increase in food insecure families were from North Dakota – Burke County (157%), Renville County (131%), and Dickey County (127%).
For those in rural areas, causes for food insecurity are increased by the pandemic. Isolation, job loss, lack of access to grocery stores, and limited social services availability don’t change because of a pandemic, said Teresa Bertossi, University of Minnesota-Duluth faculty member.
“Twenty percent of rural households in the US live in food deserts now, which seems strange to people, I think, but they have really limited geographic access to food banks and pantries and grocery stores,” she said.
With Covid-19, the issues facing rural areas are also economic, she said. In a recent study from Columbia University, researchers found that prices on groceries in rural areas are 4.2% higher than they are in urban areas, and during the pandemic, prices across the board have risen.
“I think Covid-19 has intensified rural food insecurity, but it didn’t cause it,” Bertossi said. “Part of that is that already food costs more in a rural place and then it has risen by 2.6%. So that’s quite a bit during the pandemic”
But, Bertossi said, it was unfair to characterize those in rural communities as poor, dumb, and incapable. Many in rural areas find ways to overcome obstacles, she said.
“I grew up in a rural area, and we grew up very, very poor, So I always am careful to honor the transformation and adaptation and resilience that still goes on in rural places, you know?” she said. “I always want to be careful not to make it seem like rural places are simply just problems… there’s a resilience and problem solving there that helps people survive.”
From backyard gardens, to co-op food stores, rural people find a way, Bertossi said.
In Grand Marais, Michigan, for example, the Grand Marais Fishery Farm and Mercantile provides the area with Michigan made gifts, specialty foods, craft beers, and fine wines against a backdrop of vintage and antique collectibles.
Located in the old Fisheries building, the store mainly feeds the tourism in the area that lies on the shores of Lake Superior.
The co-op began in the backroom of the store to provide the town’s residents, said owner Toni Whaley. Unlike most co-ops, this one focuses not so much on dry goods as on fresh foods – like fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy.
“We have somewhat limited food availability. We have a grocery store here, but if you eat in any alternative fashion at all, such as organic, free-range, non-GMO, gluten free, you don’t have access to that type of food here,” Whaley said. “So, we started the coop in 2017… partially because my eating habits include alternative food choices and we have several families in town that did the same… we’re sitting around one night and said, ‘You know what we need to? We need to try the co-op again.’”
Grand Marais, located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, has a population of 364 people. Whaley said traveling to get groceries at an IGA- or Piggly Wiggly-type store takes an hour while getting to the nearest Walmart takes two hours.
The co-op focuses on using foods from the Upper Peninsula food systems and getting them to the residents in town who want them.
During Covid, she said, traffic at the Mercantile went up.
“And I think there are two reasons for that,” she said. “One of the obvious ones is that people didn’t want to leave town to get their foods. And two, I think people’s food choices changed to eating a little bit more healthily, and… I think they were also more aware of supporting local businesses.”