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Map the Meal Gap: Covering Hunger in Your Community

Map the Meal Gap: Covering Hunger in Your Community

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

Map the Meal Gap

There's been little media coverage of Map the Meal Gap, a cleverly-named new study from the national food bank coalition Feeding America.

That's a shame, because this county-by-county examination of hunger, food insecurity and local meal prices offers up some potentially compelling local stories.

Such stories couldn't be more timely, as contentious negotiations over the federal budget recently led thousands of Americans, including chef-writer-foodie Mark Bittman, to join a National Day of Fasting to protest proposed funding cuts that would slash food assistance for the poor.

 You can get started by reading the executive summary, which details how the study was conducted and defines what a "meal gap" is:

The Meal Gap: The total annual food-budget shortfall in a specified area divided by the weighted cost per meal in that area. The meal gap number represents the number of meals the food insecure population in the selected geography reports needing to meet their food needs.

Feeding America conducted the study to help local food banks better document and understand the food needs in their communities. Traditionally, food banks have used USDA national food insecurity data and the number of people living under the federal poverty level in a community to estimate need, but as the report notes:

National food insecurity data reveal that about 45% of those struggling with hunger actually have incomes above the federal poverty level and 53% of poor households are food secure.

Why might that be? Do people in poor, but "food secure," households have access to cheaper food? Do they grow their own food? Are hungry people with above-poverty incomes living in expensive areas, have little access to low-cost food, or are they making poor spending choices? You get the point: the experience of hunger varies widely across the nation, and doesn't always flow directly from poverty.

Map the Meal Gap's county-level profiles are based on statistical models incorporating national, state and county data on food prices, food security, poverty, unemployment and median income. In the interest of simplicity, the study's interactive graphic allows you only to see data for one county at a time, so it's difficult for journalists to compare counties or do any kind of spreadsheet work without asking Feeding America for its database.

Still, the executive summary highlights outlier counties and breaks down, by county, how Native Americans, Latinos and African-Americans are disproportionately affected by food insecurity and higher food costs.  

And you can do simple comparisons by cursoring over the interactive graphic to get profiles of counties you're interested in. For example, in California's rural Merced County, about 23 percent of residents, or 56,000 people, are estimated to be food-insecure, while in adjacent (and more affluent) Mariposa County, only about 15 percent of residents are food insecure.

Have you reported on hunger in your community? Were you surprised by what you found? Share your thoughts, and your stories, in the comments below.


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.


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