For more than 17,000 people in Johnson County, uncertainty hangs over every meal.
They don’t know if they’ll have food to eat tomorrow or the day after. Parents worry that they’ll run out of groceries before the end of the week or the month, leaving their children hungry.
And the situation is getting worse.
A recent study on food insecurity has shown that about 12 percent of county residents have limited access to the amount and quality of food needed to live a healthy life. Nearly 7,000 children don’t know when or where their next meal will come from.
The report illuminates a problem that often is hidden from public view, said Emily Weikert Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry.
“There’s a lot of folks who are unaware that hunger and food insecurity exist in Indiana,” she said. “This shows that not only does it occur in Indiana but in every county in Indiana. There are still a large number of people who don’t know where their next meal will come from and how.”
Food insecurity, as outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, means that people have limited financial means to get all of the nutrition they need each day.
That could mean that they are on a fixed income or nutritional assistance programs, requiring them to budget throughout the month. They could be homeless and have no regular access
“It may not be every day, but at times they have difficulty getting what they need,” Bryant said.
Data collected since 2010 shows the level of food insecurity in Johnson County going up gradually. That year, 11.9 percent of the population was uncertain about where their food would come from, compared with 12.2 percent in 2012, the most recent data released.
An estimated 6,400 children age 17 and under did not have consistent access to food in 2010, compared with 6,730 in 2012.
Despite the fact that the county’s rates have increased, Johnson County’s results remain lower than all but 13 Indiana counties. The county also remains below the state average for both overall food insecurity and child food insecurity.
Throughout the state, 16.2 percent of the population is unsure of where they will get their next meal. Looking just at people younger than 18, the study shows that 21.8 percent of all children in the state are in that same position.
“Until the last of these folks become more economically secure, we’re going to continue to have this problem in Indiana and the country,” Bryant said. “Until that time, it’s important to know that those people are out there and how we can help them.”
At the Interchurch Food Pantry in Franklin on Tuesday morning, people lined up outside 45 minutes before the food pantry opened, waiting for the chance to collect canned vegetables, boxed macaroni and fresh meat and milk.
The start of 2014 has been one of the busiest the pantry has had, according to Carol Phipps, co-manager of the pantry. Through March, the pantry is feeding 27 percent more people than it did at the start of 2013.
A combination of the end of unemployment benefits for a large number of people and reduced food stamp and veterans support
payments is driving the increase. More and more people are finding the jobs they have can’t cover their food expenses, Phipps said.
“We have been hearing this for a while, that people are underemployed,” she said. “They’ve either had to take a part-time job or lower-paying job than they did. Though they’re working, they’re not bringing in enough to feed themselves or their families.”
The impact of food insecurity locally comes from a nationwide study done by Feeding America. The charity organization operates a network of more than 200 food banks, with the aim of ending hunger.
Craig Gundersen, a professor of agricultural strategy at the University of Illinois, gathered hunger statistics for individual counties and states and the country as a whole. For this study, Gundersen examined indicators of food insecurity, such as poverty levels, unemployment and median income and cross-examined that data with the average cost of a meal.
He found that, as a country, nearly 16 percent of the population are unsure how they’ll feed themselves.
“Food insecurity is in every community. They are people you know, whether it’s someone who goes to school with your child or goes to your church or lives in your neighborhood, that are having trouble making ends meet in their household,” Bryant said.
With the release of the study, local food banks will be able to better target and serve the population within their communities. For example, the numbers allow Gleaners Food Bank, which provides much of the food for Johnson County’s food pantries, to understand which food is most needed where, Bryant said.
Hopefully, it also will encourage the public to increase assistance to their local charities. At the Interchurch Food Pantry, food costs have more than doubled from last year, Phipps said. This is the time of year when the overwhelming support people showed during the holiday season has started to run out.
“Where we can really benefit is the people who can bring in canned food from food drives,” Phipps said. “It’s wonderful where food groups and church groups can provide us with food that we can turn around and hand right to the people who need it.”
A study measured food insecurity in 2012, defined as not having access, either through financial restrictions or location, to enough food for an active, healthy life at all times.
Rate: 12.2 percent
Estimated number: 17,030
Amount of money needed to meet food needs: $7,771,000
Average cost of a meal: $2.61
Rate: 15.7 percent
Estimated number: 1,023,650
Amount of money needed to meet food needs: $435 million
Average cost of a meal: $2.43
Rate: 15.9 percent
Estimated number: 49 million
Amount of money needed to meet food needs: $23 billion
Average cost of a meal: $2.74