Hunger is a challenge for many Ramsey County residents. We have higher rates of food insecurity, a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live a healthy life, than the Minnesota state average. This gap widened during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, 12% of Ramsey County residents were food insecure, while the state average was 10%. This trend continued in 2021 and the gap widened further during the COVID-19 pandemic. Children, older adults, and racially and ethnically diverse communities are the most impacted by food insecurity. The COVID-19 pandemic further exposed inequities among our most vulnerable community members.
Ramsey County is taking steps with our partners to continue to address food insecurity.
Food insecurity in Ramsey County
COVID-related quarantines disrupted employment and rising inflation rates created financial strains that have increased food insecurity, leading to poorer health for our most vulnerable residents.
Food insecurity has impacts throughout all stages of life. Inconsistent access to nutritious food contributes to social, behavioral, and educational challenges in children, mental health conditions, and development of chronic diseases in adults and older adults.
Food insecurity among children and older adults
Twenty percent of Ramsey County children (or 1 in 5) were estimated to be food insecure in 2020, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, dramatically higher than the statewide rate. In 2017-18, nearly 3 out of 5 children (55.9%) in Ramsey County received free or reduced lunch – one of the highest rates in the state (the MN average was 37.5%) - which can be a measure for food insecurity. Universal Free School Meals were available during the COVID-19 pandemic but expired June 2022, even though childhood hunger is expected to continue to rise.
In 2022, 35% of Ramsey County’s children under the age of 5 participate in the WIC (Women, Infants, Children) program compared to 23% state-wide. Children who are racially and ethnically diverse are more likely to benefit from WIC than their white counterparts: 39% of WIC recipients in Ramsey County are Asian, 29% are Black/African American, and 16.5% are Hispanic/Latino, whereas only 9% the county’s WIC recipients are white.
Children under the age of 18 are also the largest age group that benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) comprising 38% of the county's program participants.
Adults 55 and older are the second-highest group after children, with 20% of SNAP recipients in this age group. As the population ages, these rates are expected to increase as adults over 65 are the fastest-growing age group of Ramsey County residents.
Food insecurity among racially and ethnically diverse residents
Due to longstanding structural inequities, our racially and ethnically diverse communities continue to experience higher rates of food insecurity in Minnesota. Even people who earn low wages working part- or full-time can receive SNAP benefits, since they can have total income below the federal poverty guidelines.
There are also structural barriers that play a role in why our racially and ethnically diverse communities need SNAP benefits and experience food insecurity at higher rates. These barriers include gaps in wealth and inheritance and home ownership due to historical policies, like redlining.
Despite making up a smaller proportion of the Ramsey County population compared to their white counterparts, they account for the majority of SNAP beneficiaries in 2020. Black residents are 38% of SNAP recipients compared to being 13% of the total population. Asian residents are 30% of SNAP recipients, despite being only 15% of the population. Moreover, Meals on Wheels (meal delivery for elders) data shows that during the pandemic, participation among minority groups increased 13% while participation among white residents decreased 14%. This data demonstrates that our diverse older adults and youngest children are hurting as well.
The impact of food insecurity
Food insecurity affects all aspects of a person's life and the larger community. People experiencing food insecurity are often forced to make tough choices that negatively impact health, such as:
- Postponing or avoiding preventative or needed medical care.
- Purchasing inexpensive, unhealthy food.
- Not following special diets required to prevent or control chronic health conditions like diabetes.
- Not filling, skipping or reducing necessary doses of prescriptions, or not taking medications as instructed.
- Choosing between food and other basic needs like infant formula, housing, utilities and transportation.
Other impacts of food insecurity impact economic well-being:
- Child hunger leads to absenteeism, employees who present but not able to be productive, and turnover in the work environment, all of which are costly for employers. Child sick days are linked to parent employee absences.
- Workers who experienced hunger as children are not as well prepared physically, mentally, emotionally or socially to perform effectively in the workforce.
Conditions associated with food insecurity:
- Mental health conditions including: depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.
- Chronic diseases including: diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, arthritis, stroke, cardiovascular disease.
- Pregnancy complications.
- Social, behavioral and educational challenges in children: lower test scores, school absences, trouble concentrating, anti-social behavior, low self-esteem, irritability.
- Lower cognitive function and more frequent falls in older adults.
Addressing food insecurity in Ramsey County
Food insecurity is affected by income, job stability, affordable housing, health care needs and transportation access. As these factors improve, food security also improves. Addressing food insecurity is fundamental to improving health-related outcomes and overall well-being for all residents.
During the pandemic, Ramsey County dedicated $10 million to meet food security and basic needs for those most affected by COVID-19, and county leadership remains committed to food security as an important priority for Ramsey County. Currently, our efforts to support this work include:
- Setting a strategic priority of “Advancing a Holistic Approach to Strengthen Families.”
- Measuring how we address food insecurity by connecting people with SNAP.
- Working with the Urban Institute’s Upward Mobility project.
- Our 2040 Comprehensive Plan to Build Resilience includes a goal to “Work with community partners to eliminate food insecurity by 2040.”
- Public Health Community Health Assessment supporting Healthy Food.
- Maintaining a Food Resources webpage to help residents locate food support.
- Creating a Food Security Coordinator position within the Health and Wellness Service Team.
- Continuing to align Statewide Health Improvement Partnership grant activities around healthy eating and food access.
- Recent COVID relief efforts/CARES funding addressing hunger in our community.
Food insecurity rates were projected to decrease in 2021; however, with the lasting effects of COVID, supply chain issues and now the pressing rise of inflation to the highest rates in decades, the household dollar doesn’t stretch as far as it once did. Housing, transportation and food costs have all increased, meaning families have to decide how to manage their household budget, and unfortunately, skipping meals and relying on safety-net organizations has become a necessity.
Additionally, much of the funding for COVID-related assistance is being discontinued, and while our communities that were hit hardest by the pandemic continue to feel the economic strain - especially children, older adults, and racially and ethnically diverse communities. Equitable relief and support are still needed to help our community recover from the pandemic since food insecurity rates may continue to rise. Due to the existing strain on the safety-net system, state and federal funding will be crucial to address the ongoing needs of our residents.