That framework clearly fails, though, in America’s rural areas, which rely on SNAP more heavily than cities, and where poor adults and children can suffer deep food instability and jobs are ever harder to come by. A map from the Food Research & Action Center illustrates the places in America with the greatest SNAP participation rates. With few exceptions, the counties with the highest percentage of SNAP recipients are rural, with a third or more of all the families in the poorest rural counties receiving assistance. In all, rural households are about 25 percent more likely to receive SNAP benefits than urban households are.
The increased reliance of rural households on SNAP means that, in many rural areas, SNAP keeps fragile nutrition networks afloat, and the program’s meager average daily benefit is all that stands between recipients and hunger. It may seem counterintuitive, given the common association of rural areas with agriculture, but rural areas are home to most of the country’s “food deserts,” where fresh produce and healthy options are often out of reach. Long drives for food and groceries are common, which means that time and transportation costs are appended to food costs in family budgets. The number of rural grocery stores is declining precipitously nationwide, tightening the food supply and increasing costs.
Poverty is also high in rural areas, where, according to the Census Bureau, 16 percent of all people are under the poverty line, versus 12 percent of people in urban areas. People in rural areas are older and more likely to be disabled than their urban counterparts as well. County maps of poverty and child poverty from the Census Bureau, as well as disability from the University of Montana, all look fairly similar to the map of SNAP-participation rates.
These factors conspire to make American food insecurity a uniquely rural problem. As Jessica Leigh Hester reported last year at CityLab, “of the U.S. counties with the highest rates of food insecurity, 76 percent are rural.” The food-bank network Feeding America defines food insecurity as the likelihood of a household to be unable to afford or find healthy food options. That likelihood is controlled by poverty, welfare benefits, and by the price and availability of food. Feeding America’s map of food security in American counties also produces a similar vista to views of SNAP participation and poverty. The most food-insecure counties—where a third or more of all families have to choose between food and other necessities—lie in a swath of rural counties in the South.
It’s in such places where any major changes in SNAP will have their biggest effects.
And there are several changes afoot. The draft of the Farm Bill that recently passed the House Agriculture Committee would reauthorize and expand the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program (FINI), providing $275 million over the next five years to the grant program that helps extend SNAP and cash incentives to farmers’ markets and supports other ways to connect farmers and low-income consumers. It also would fund a $1.2 billion pilot program over 10 years to reimburse retailers and grocers that provide discounts on some fresh produce and milk, and increase funding for food-education programs.