Missouri needs to improve its food security, multiple speakers said at Saturday’s Building Blocks for Missouri’s Success annual conference.
This year’s conference focused on the importance of food security and that nothing is more basic than food, said Nicole McKoy, president of the board of directors at Empower Missouri.
The rate of food insecurity in Missouri is 12%, while the U.S. average is 11.7%, said Bill McKelvey, project coordinator at MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security.
Food insecurity is when there are reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service website.
“We certainly know that children who receive good nutrition before birth and in their early years have many advantages around their physical and mental development,” McKoy said. “Adequate food is equally important for working adults, people working with chronic health conditions and to our elders.”
The annual conference is organized by Empower Missouri and is aimed at advocating for the well-being of all Missourians through civic leadership, education and research. Speakers addressed an audience of about 100 at Hickman High School.
Workshops took place in the morning, covering a range of topics including the 2019 Missouri Hunger Atlas, fighting for food justice, landlord and tenant education and discovering the “good taste” of healthy food.
“2019 Missouri Hunger Atlas: Making it work for you and your community” was presented by Mary Hendrickson and Bill McKelvey from MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security.
The Missouri Hunger Atlas uses maps and tables to show the extent of food insecurity in all 114 Missouri counties and the city of St. Louis. It also assesses the performance of public and private programs intended to help people struggling with hunger, according to the MU Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security.
“We are just a little bit above the average, but in this case, above average is not good,” McKelvey said.
According to the 2019 Missouri Hunger Atlas, the city of St. Louis has the highest rate of food insecurity, at 23.3% of its population, while St. Charles County has the lowest rate of food insecurity, at 9% of its population.
Hendrickson and McKelvey taught the audience how to use the atlas to advocate for communities and explore solutions from the local to global level.
The keynote speaker was Ellen Teller, director of government affairs of the Food Research & Action Center. FRAC is the leading national nonprofit organization working to eradicate poverty-related hunger and undernutrition in the United States, according to its website. Teller said that Child Nutrition Reauthorization is her favorite act to work on through FRAC.
CNR provides Congress with an opportunity to improve and strengthen the child nutrition and school meal programs. Teller said the goals of CNR are:
- Do no harm — ensure that when advocating new approaches, they will not unintentionally weaken programs in place.
- Increase access to healthy, nutritious food in preschool and child care, in school and outside of school.
- Improve program administration and operation for sponsors and providers.
“When you walk out those doors today, what are you going to do?” Teller said. “How are we going to work together to make Missouri and the rest of the country stronger nutritionally?”
An afternoon workshop titled “Policies and Programs Addressing Insecurity for Children and Families” was presented by Sarah Swearer, the manager of public policy for Operation Food Search.
“What we try to do at OFS is talk a lot about how good policy informs good programs and good programs inform good policy,” Swearer said. “We try to integrate policy and advocacy in the work that we do.”
Programs to reduce food insecurity and increase access to healthy and affordable food, such as the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, were discussed.
The conference was wrapped up with a legislative panel with Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold; Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield; and Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, on the #MOSNAPChallenge. SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that supplements the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency, according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service website.
The #MOSNAPChallenge encourages elected leaders to understand the difficulty that many of their constituents experience while shopping for groceries.
According to Empower Missouri’s website, SNAP allows for an average of $1.33 per person, per meal, based on a USDA formula called the Thrifty Food Plan.
Unsicker talked about her experience with the challenge and how she used the $1.33 per meal per day to feed her family of four for three days, which ended up being just under $50 for the challenge.
“I didn’t think it would be as hard as it was,” Unsicker said. They had dried beans and rice because that budget does not pay for much variety, Unsicker added.
Quade discussed what it was like growing up in a family that relied on SNAP and how beneficial it is to those who need it.
“I thank Empower Missouri for asking folks to do it because it starts a dialogue,” Quade said. “When it comes to this type of policy that we are discussing, all of that is based on conversation, and if we don’t have folks who understand it from lived experience or professional experience, we’ve got to have things like this to spark that conversation.”