Nearly 17 percent of Kentuckians, or more than 700,000 residents, are "food insecure," according to the latest report by Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks. Almost 22 percent of the state's children, more than 220,000, fall into the same category, the report says.
Food insecurity refers to the state or risk of being unable to provide food for an individual or family. Poverty and unemployment are key factors in food insecurity, according to the report, but being above or below the poverty line is not the only factor considered.
The good news is that both the overall and child rates for Kentucky show a decline.
The most recent available statistics are from 2012. The state's overall food insecure rate is 16.7 percent, a decrease from 17.2 percent in 2011. The state's child food insecure rate was 21.6 percent in 2012, down from 22.4 percent in 2011. Kentucky is ranked 29th in the nation in child food-insecurity.
The U.S. average overall food insecure rate is 15.9 percent, and the U.S. average child food insecure rate is 21.6 percent.
Fulton County had the highest food insecure rating in the state, at 23.2 percent. In 2011, the Fulton County rate was 23.7 percent.
Fulton County Judge-Executive David Gallagher thinks Fulton County may have a high-risk population statistically, but there are several programs and services to help the needy.
"I'm not sure how those statistics are arrived at," Gallagher said. "I think there are plenty of safety nets for people who may be hungry," he said, referring to programs such as Meals On Wheels, food pantries, church groups and regional programs offered through community action agencies such as West Kentucky Allied Services.
Gallagher said the Fulton County area is also a place where neighbors help each other. "This is a very active, caring community. I see evidence of that all of the time. I'm very happy that we live in that kind of community," he said.
Gallagher agrees the rural community faces challenges, but he sees encouraging signs ahead such as plants starting to hire and an unemployment rate that could dip below 10 percent for the first time in many years.
Gary Miles is executive director of Feeding America Kentucky's Heartland, a certified Elizabethtown affiliate of the national Feeding America organization. The regional food bank delivers food to 42 Kentucky counties, including the eight counties in west Kentucky directly served by the Purchase Area Development District's Commodity & Food Bank Task Force.
Through its warehouse operation, the Kentucky affiliate serves 220 organizations which provide food to the needy. Nearly 10 million pounds of food are distributed each year.
"Half of our distribution is donated foods and the other half is food purchased by the U.S. government and managed through the state of Kentucky," Miles said. That portion is part of the Department of Agriculture's appropriation from the federal farm bill.
According to Miles, Feeding America Kentucky's Heartland also receives large donations of food from area Walmarts, Sam's Clubs and Kroger stores. Those companies donate food they are unable to sell and items with small defects in their packaging but are still edible.
The regional food bank also helps feed qualifying school children through its backpack program. With the assistance of teachers and family resource centers in schools, Feeding America volunteers stuff grocery bags with food which are distributed to schools. That food is discreetly placed in the backpacks of children in need so they will have food through the weekend, Miles said.
The state also approved $600,000 a year for two years to be given to the state association of food banks to purchase food produced by Kentucky farmers, Miles said.
There will always be some people who will need assistance, according to Miles.
"People in need will always be with us," Miles said. "We have to always look for better, more efficient ways to give food to people who need it. If we weren't there, what would they do? Some of them would go hungry."
Contact David Zoeller, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676.