Despite an improved economy and lower national jobless rate since the recession, every single county in America is facing hunger, according to a new report.
"There is not a single county in the United States, where food insecurity doesn't exist." said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of government relations at Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger relief organization.
And in a double whammy of bad economic news, Americans living in the most remote and rural areas suffer many of the highest rates of food insecurity — and also pay more for groceries, according to the research.
"In many counties, mostly counties in remote and rural areas, a number of people who are food insecure also pay prices for groceries that are significantly higher than the national average, which makes it even more difficult for them to make ends meet," Davis said.
The data are part of an annual "Map the Meal Gap" report released last week from Feeding America.
Access to transportation, jobs and groceries can impact food insecurity in rural areas.
More than half the counties with the highest rates of overall food insecurity are rural, according to the report. Among counties with child food insecurity rates in the top 10 percent, 64 percent are in remote areas.
The highest rate of child food insecurity is 42 percent in Apache County, Arizona, home to the Navajo nation and other reservations.
"People living there might not have a wide array of grocery and retail stores that are present in many parts of the country," Davis said.
Americans living in rural communities also face some of the highest average costs per meal. Many variables including transportation costs and local food production infrastructure can influence consumer food prices.
And these factors including higher transportation expenses can sometimes mask food insecurity and the challenge of securing the next meal — even in wealthier communities.
For example, in Nantucket County, Massachusetts, a popular summer getaway, the average cost of a meal is $3.28 — higher than the national average cost per meal of $2.89 among food-secure people.
While households in the New England region have higher-than-average median incomes, the local population also includes many service industry workers for whom higher food costs can be a challenge.
The national average cost per meal ranges from a low of $2.02 in Willacy and Maverick counties in Texas, to a high of $5.61 in Crook County, Oregon.
As research on hunger historically has shown, key factors influencing food insecurity include unemployment.
Food insecurity, according to the study, posted a low of 4 percent in Loudoun County, Virginia, where unemployment is low.
On the other end of the spectrum, food insecurity posted a high of 38 percent in Jefferson County, Mississippi, where unemployment is more than double the national jobless rate.
But just as the broad economic recovery has been patchy, the new hunger data reveal an unevenness among Americans who are barely able to put food on the table.
Food insecurity, in fact, is cropping up in many U.S. households that are not living below the poverty level.
There are 167 U.S. counties across the nation, where the majority of food insecure children fall in a kind of gray area. They don't qualify for federal nutrition programs such as the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which used to be known as the food stamps program. But these children are far from well-off or well-fed, and instead rely on churches, food banks and charities that sometimes are the sole source of food.
This trend is occurring in highly populated areas including Nassau County, New York, and Honolulu County, Hawaii, according to the report.
"This is happening in higher cost-of-living counties," Davis said. "You can't pay part of your rent, so food is where they cut back."
And even in big cities like Boston, the new meal gap data along with anecdotes suggest how even a low jobless rate can't necessarily buffer against hunger.
For example, unemployment in Massachusetts is under the U.S. jobless rate of 5 percent. In the Boston area that includes Suffolk County, where the food insecurity rate is 15.9 percent, virtually flat from year-ago levels. Despite that steadiness in the food insecurity rate, local families are struggling financially as the cost of living has risen, said Catherine D'Amato, president and chief executive of the Greater Boston Food Bank.
Not only have rents gone up in Boston, the average cost of of a meal is $3.17, higher than the national average of $2.89.
"There's an increase in disparity," D'Amato said. "Post-recession, that's has only become more visible."