Rurality: A Barrier to Food Access

Whether surrounded by forests or fields that stretch for miles, 33 of the 40 counties Feeding America West Michigan serves are rural.
According to the Feeding America National Organization, “three-quarters of the counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are in rural areas.” It’s true, in the food bank’s service area, food insecurity rates are significantly higher in 27 of these 33 rural counties.

Scottville, a small city in Mason County, exemplifies the disparity between urban and rural food access. Thirty years ago, a Mason County resident could purchase everything they needed from a local business, and the money would stay in their immediate community. Young people would leave for college, but return equipped with an agriculture or engineering degree that could be utilized at a local factory.

Today, an increasingly industrialized and globalized world has caused economic decline in rural areas like Mason County. Jobs continue to migrate toward urban areas – making local jobs scarce. In an effort to find work, many young adults choose to follow. Those who remain pay higher rent, and must drive outside of their communities for work and to obtain basic necessities like groceries.

Rural residents work hard to feed their families, but their heightened risk of food insecurity persists. In Mason County, 1 in 8 people are food insecure. The possibility of going hungry is even higher among children – 1 in 5 face food insecurity. That’s why a Mobile Food Pantry, stocked with 5,000 pounds – or 4,100 meals worth – of food can make such a big impact in a small city like Scottville.

Four Mobile Pantries held at Mason County Reformed Church between March and June were funded by the Feeding America National Organization in an effort to relieve hunger in Mason County. During this time, they also supported other high-need counties in Feeding America West Michigan’s service area. Those who attended the distribution in Scottsville told diverse stories, but face common challenges inherent to living in a rural environment.

Crystal, who drove in to Scottville to attend one of the Mobile Food Pantries held at Mason County Reformed Church, has experienced the challenges of living in a rural community first-hand. Her husband drives to Ludington each day to work at a factory, while she stays home to care for their two children. Living on a single income is difficult, but the cost of daycare would consume the income she could bring in by working. Crystal explained that although her husband makes good money, they still struggle to make ends meet.

Her sister Diamond is in a similar situation: She works fulltime while her husband takes care of their two children.

Crystal and Diamond have utilized Mobile Food Pantries in Ludington, but were excited when they learned that there were some happening closer to home.

“It helps because it’s hard to scrape by,” Crystal said.

Crystal and Diamond point to the increasing cost of living as another reason they’re seeking food support. This resonates with neighbor Jenny, a senior who lives with her handicapped daughter. Both are among the 33 percent of Americans at risk for food insecurity but ineligible for government food assistance. Since they are living on a fixed income, their budget is heavily constrained, and it’s difficult for them to pay utility bills.

“We stretch our pay for a month and when it gets close to the end, we run out of everything. So this is great,” Jenny said. “I appreciate it immensely.”

Given the number of residents facing food insecurity in the county, it’s no surprise the last Mobile Pantry held at Mason County Reformed Church served over 100 families.

“It’s actually insane to me how much need there is in our community,” said Chris, one of the Mobile Pantry coordinators. “I think we’re really blessed to live in a community that when there’s someone in need, there’s always someone there to meet the need.”

The first distribution served just over 50 people, but word of mouth caused that number to nearly triple by the next one. Volunteers included neighbors who went through the line themselves, church members and regular volunteers from Caritas Food Pantry.

Kelly, who runs Caritas and is the point person for these Mobile Pantries, believes more hunger relief options are needed in her community. Most of the hunger relief agencies in the county limit the frequency of visits and the amount of food available, and due to limited storage capabilities, they have fewer fresh options. Having at least one Mobile Pantry available to fill the gap makes a big difference.

As Feeding America West Michigan works to address the heightened need for food support in the rural counties it serves, partner agencies like Caritas Food Pantry and Mason County Reformed Church are an essential piece to the puzzle. Securing adequate funding to provide the Mobile Food Pantries these 27 rural counties need is the missing piece that has yet to be found.

If you would like to support these rural counties, please donate here.