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Kentucky's hunger initiative earns national attention. But thousands still need food

Fellowship Story Showcase

Kentucky's hunger initiative earns national attention. But thousands still need food

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The Courier Journal's continued coverage of food insecurity in Louisville is supported by the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism's 2018 National Fellowship.

Other stories in this series include:

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Sorry, we're closed: How everyone is hurt when grocery stores shut down

In 30 seconds: What you should know about food deserts in Louisville

Tuition or food? How college kids use food pantries to help food insecurity

Louisville has a fresh food problem. Can we fix it?

'A real crisis in Louisville': Readers respond to food desert series

How a low-income Louisville neighborhood became a fresh food oasis

How can cities end food deserts? Here are 4 solutions that worked

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No grocery store in your neighborhood? Join forces to create one

People can't get to a grocery store easily. So these volunteers are driving them

Would you shop at a mobile grocery store? Kroger is betting on it 

Where You Live Determines How Much Your Eggs Cost at Kroger

How some residents get their food in Louisville's food deserts

Can indoor farming fix food deserts? These Louisville students think so

How these Louisville companies are helping employees buy affordable fresh produce

Downtown Louisville is growing rapidly. So why doesn't it have a grocery store?

Is crime driving grocery stores out of Louisville's low-income communities?

Louisville kids are still at risk for lead poisoning. Here's how healthy eating can help

When will downtown Louisville get a grocery store? Here's what we found

Everything you need to know about Kroger's mobile grocery store in Louisville

Kroger's mobile market brings fresh food to Louisville neighborhoods without access

This nonprofit leader is giving west Louisville the black-owned grocery it 'deserves'

Courier Journal
Monday, May 13, 2019

Rural communities nationwide are often hit hardest by food insecurity, meaning the people who live there don't have enough access to healthy, affordable food.

Kentucky, according to recently released national data, is no exception.

But over the past three years, the state has made great strides toward addressing food insecurity in distressed rural communities — and it's become a model for other states looking to try new solutions.

Earlier this year, Kentucky hosted the first-ever Summit on Rural Child Hunger, organized by the national No Kid Hungry campaign. The state was selected in part because of its Hunger Initiative, an effort launched by Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles in 2016.

Since it began, the initiative has successfully:

► Donated more than 150 refrigerated coolers and freezers to dozens of food pantries statewide. The cold storage has allowed the pantries to accept donations of fresh and frozen proteins, milk and other items that could previously have spoiled.

► Helped pass the "Food Immunity Bill," which protects groceries, farmers and other entities that donate food to nonprofit organizations from civil or criminal liability as long as there was no intentional misconduct.

► Created an economic incentive for summer meal programs, which encourages school- and nonprofit-led sites to purchase more fruits and vegetables from Kentucky farmers. In 2018, 30 sites participated in the pilot program, purchasing close to 40,000 pounds of local produce that went to Kentucky kids.

► And advocated for the continued funding of the Farm to Food Banks Trust Fund, which awards grants to eligible nonprofit organizations that provide food to low-income Kentuckians.

"What we've learned in Kentucky is that a one-size-fits-all solution doesn't work," Quarles said about the wide-ranging initiative. "We're a very regional state, and we have to adjust for differences. 

"We knew already we had a lot of people operating in this sector. But we could do a better job of helping coordinate them and getting them together because, quite frankly, the cost to Kentucky's economy, the cost to Kentucky's potential workforce, the cost to everyday schoolkids was just way too high to ignore."

According to the most recent national data, more than 660,000 Kentuckians were considered food insecure in 2017, including an estimated 186,000 children.

That number is down slightly from the 699,000 people who were considered food insecure in 2015 — thanks, in part, to continued economic recovery from the Great Recession.

But Kentucky still has a higher-than-average rate for food insecurity when compared with the rest of the country. In 2017, Kentucky tied with Texas for the seventh worst rate, according to national data from Feeding America, the country's largest hunger relief organization. It maintains a website that breaks down food insecurity rates for every county in the United States. 

Within the state itself, some counties fare better than others, according to a map from Feeding America, an anti-hunger organization that supports 200 food banks nationwide.

In the eastern part of the state, 12 predominantly rural counties had food insecurity rates at 20% or higher. Food insecurity rates for children in those counties are even greater, topping out at 31.5% in Magoffin County.

People who experience food insecurity have higher chances of developing nutrition-related health issues, such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and it costs taxpayers in Kentucky and around the nation millions of dollars in emergency health care.

And the risks are even greater for children, who are more likely to repeat a grade, miss school frequently or not graduate high school if they routinely don't get enough to eat.

"There's still a long way to go to meet the need," said Kate McDonald, coordinator of the KY Kids Eat program through Feeding Kentucky, a nonprofit that supports the state's food banks. "But the work that's being done is really high quality, which is exciting to hear."

[This article was originally published by the Courier Journal.]