windshields of cars at a rural food pantry, veiled in the shadowy hallways of blighted urban apartments, hidden behind the curtains of sprawling but heavily mortgaged houses in the suburbs, the specter of hunger stalks millions of Americans.
In a 2006 study, America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief charity, reported that some 25.3 million hungry people sought help from one of its affiliated food banks. Since then, economic stagnation and growing unemployment mean that people from walks of life not typically associated with depravation have very likely joined their ranks.
"Based on the findings of this study," the Hunger in America 2006 report reads, "the millions of people served by our Network do not meet the stereotypical profile of a hungry person. The data show that hunger reaches into virtually all communities across the United States, affecting even the least likely of victims."
That the plight of so many hungry citizens remains largely outside the experience and understanding of millions of Americans says much about the gloss of affluence which burnishes even the roughest edges of our consumer culture. It also points to the need for a more sophisticated approach to analyzing the problem; in particular, the need to efficiently organize state-specific data on the nature and reach of poverty, hunger, and their close relative, food insecurity -- a phrase defined by the USDA as "not always having access to enough food to meet basic needs."
Enter Sandy Rikoon, Matt Foulkes, Joan Hermsen and Nikki Raedeke, four MU scholars who aim to meet that challenge by providing policy makers, social workers and hunger activists with a new, powerful tool for exposing hunger in its hidden haunts.
Working with food banks and other food relief providers, Rikoon, a professor of rural sociology and director of MU's Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security, and Foulkes, an assistant professor of geography, recently led a group of MU scholars in a massive effort to map the location and extent of food insecurity in Missouri. The resulting Missouri Hunger Atlas, published last spring, is a comprehensive county-by-county breakdown of nutritional need. It is unlike any other hunger mapping project in the nation, the researchers say, because it simultaneously illustrates overall "need," the extent of food insecurity in a given place, and "performance," how well that need is being met.
"The underlying motivation is to provide a level of detail that has a practical side to it, so that people can look in their county and see what's going on," says Foulkes. "But it has a much broader impact in doing something about hunger. When people see a big number, it's very easy for lawmakers to think that 'my county is fine.' But once you really boil it down to a county level, that really hits home with policymakers."