When food is hard to find: Nearly 10 percent of Hampshire County residents are food insecure

  • The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield. Photographed on Thursday, April 18, 2019. FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Fresh produce recovered from area farms. Food Bank of Western Massachusetts

Staff Writer
Published: 5/15/2019 12:05:06 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Nearly 10 percent of Hampshire County residents are estimated to be food insecure, according to a new report from Feeding America, a nonprofit network of more than 200 food banks around the United States.

The May 1 report, “Map the Meal Gap 2019,” estimates how many people are food insecure in counties and congressional districts across the country by analyzing 2017 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Labor Statistics and Nielsen.

As the report defined it, “food insecure” means not having consistent access to adequate food.

Nationwide, an estimated 40 million people, or 12.5 percent of the population, have uncertain access to food. An interactive map on the nonprofit’s website allows users to look at food insecurity rates across the nation.

In western Massachusetts, 9.6 percent of Hampshire County residents are estimated to be food insecure, compared to 8.8 percent of residents in Franklin County, 9.7 percent of residents in Berkshire County, 10 percent of residents in Hampden County and 9 percent of all Massachusetts residents.

“It’s disheartening and really concerning that anybody in our communities are going hungry or are food insecure,” said Heidi Nortonsmith, the executive director of the Northampton Survival Center.

Nortonsmith said that as someone who works with those struggling with food insecurity, she’s not surprised by the numbers. But food insecurity is an issue that is often “invisible” in the county, she added.

“People are struggling — kind of in anonymity and often in shame,” she said. “These are not issues of far away or other countries … This issue of food insecurity happens right in our area.”

Nortonsmith said that around 60 percent of those who come to the Northampton Survival Center are on the lowest end of food insecurity based on survey questions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Transportation is a big obstacle to food security for many in the region, and recent budget cuts to the PVTA have exacerbated that problem, Nortonsmith added.

“I was struck by the fact that Hampshire County’s food insecurity rate overall is higher than Franklin County,” said Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, adding that the statistic may be attributed to a higher cost of living in Hampshire County. The Hatfield-based food bank is part of the Feeding America network.

Nine percent of Massachusetts residents are estimated to not have consistent access to food. Statewide and in western Massachusetts, children are at a higher risk of food insecurity, according to the data. Across the four counties of western Massachusetts, 14.2 percent of children are food insecure. Overall in the state, ​​​​​​11.7 percent of children are food insecure.

“I’m not surprised that western Massachusetts has a higher child and overall food insecurity rate than the state average,” Morehouse said. “We seem to always lag behind in economic recovery compared to the rest of the state.”

Many who are food insecure do not have access to public benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), according to the data. Forty-two percent of the estimated food-insecure residents of Hampshire County are not eligible for SNAP and other nutritional programs because their income is considered too high for them to qualify. That’s “sobering” Morehouse said, noting that, without benefits, people rely on emergency food programs like food pantries.

Last year, Morehouse said, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts distributed 10.5 million pounds of food, the largest quantity it has distributed in over a decade.

Dusty Christensen contributed reporting to this article.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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