By Linda Kor
Recent studies have shown that food insecurity in America is on the rise, meaning that the number of people uncertain of where their next meal may come from has increased. It’s an issue that’s not far from home, as Navajo County ranks third in the state with 22.7 percent of the population dealing with food insecurity. It’s a problem that arises not from lack of food, but from poverty and a limited amount of nutritional foods available in some rural areas.
According to findings by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), the food hardship rate in Arizona increased in 2012, with more than one in five Arizona households reporting not having enough money to buy the food they needed during the previous 12 months for themselves or their family.
This ranks Arizona 14th worst in the country in food hardship rate, up from 15th worst in 2011. New Map the Meal Gap data provided by Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, correlates with FRAC findings, showing that food insecurity affected 50 million people nationwide in 2011, nearly a two percent increase from 2010. Because the data presented in both studies is for the past two years, it does not reflect the new congressional districts and boundaries that have been established.
Looking to address the concern of hunger in Navajo County, Cherilyn Yazzie, nutrition program manager for Navajo County Public Health Services, is working to inform families, store owners and school officials about how to get the most nutrition for every meal purchased.
Newsletters are sent home regularly with students from schools and family fun nights are arranged to encourage healthy eating habits. But while the information has value, healthy foods can be cost prohibitive for many families, especially those receiving assistance.
There are currently 47 million Americans receiving food stamps in what is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but lawmakers have been discussing Farm Bill 2013, which would cut $20.5 billion from SNAP over the next 10 years. With food already a costly item, the gradual elimination of SNAP could create greater hardship for families uncertain of where their next meal will come from.
According to the Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, those who receive SNAP have an average food allowance of $4.50 per day. Many families who make too much money to qualify for federal food assistance find that their paychecks run out long before the end of the month. This means a limited amount of money for food, leading to diets of processed foods, which are calorie dense and nutrition poor, and can lead to obesity, diabetes and heart problems.
Yazzie agreed, “I have had parents tell me that they would like to try the recipes that their kids bring home and try new foods, but they are just too expensive for them.”
Another issue is the availability of nutritious foods in rural areas. “In rural areas such as the Navajo Nation, the only groceries are available at small convenience stores. The selection is limited to snack foods and some very ripe fruit and perhaps some frozen vegetables, which is usually corn. We’re working with store owners to provide a more nutritionally balanced selection,” stated Yazzie.
She noted that several schools within the county, such as Park Elementary School in Holbrook, have created small gardens to not only educate students on the value of whole foods, but to give them a taste of how good fresh fruits and vegetables can be. Yazzie sees this as an opportunity that can be expanded upon. “When you try to find land resources I look to the schools. They have the ability to educate and the resources to grow gardens that many families don’t have,” she said.
She is also looking at ways to connect schools with the funding resources to make bigger gardens possible. “This shouldn’t be a county thing, it should be for the schools and the kids that go there. We want to connect them with funding so that they can do this the way they want,” explained Yazzie.
Her department is also working with area food banks to see how to address the issue of food insecurity for low-income families in the county when there is no school in session in order to ensure that kids don’t go hungry during summer months.
While Navajo County ranks high in the state, there are other counties that rank even higher. Yuma County has 27.3 percent of its population facing food insecurity, followed by Apache County at 26.1 percent.
By Linda Kor