23 Dec

Taking Childhood Hunger Off the Table in American Frontier Communities

Written by Dr. Deborah Popper

AGS Vice President and Professor or Geography, Princeton University and CUNY Staten Island

Co-Authored by Susan Wilger

Tis the season for overeating, but not for all. Over a fifth of American children are food-insecure. For part of each month, their parents or caregivers don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

In October the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement urging pediatricians to make questions about food insecurity a routine part of their examination. It’s not hard. Just ask “Do run you short of food or money for it during the month?” If the answer is yes, provide referrals to food programs.

We applaud this effort, but know it falls short, especially for children living in America’s frontier communities, low-population-density places far from cities. Pediatricians are rare in such places. Take Catron County, New Mexico, population of 3,5007,000 square miles. A quick search for local pediatricians sends you across state lines to Arizona.



Frontier communities rarely have specialists. Children usually see a family practitioner, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant with offices closer than the nearest pediatrician, but still hours away.  Of course a non-specialist can and should ask about food insecurity and make the referrals the AAP points to like WIC, SNAP, the Summer Lunch Program, school food programs, food pantries and soup kitchens. But if your health care provider is distant, her or his knowledge of local resources may be thin.

Moreover, according to a study of food insecurity in a four-county southwest New Mexico corner by the National Center for Frontier Communities’ (NCFC) many of the people tapping the emergency food supply still can’t make it through the month. It’s not just frontier counties where children run out of food, but such places have special problems.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the most important institutional bulwark against hunger and malnutrition.  As with all federal programs, the USDA uses a formula to determine its contribution. For food insecurity, it relies on a weighted measure of state and county poverty and unemployment rates, 60 and 40 percent respectively. Frontier counties frequently have high rates of both, as do the NCFC’s study counties, Catron, Grant, Hidalgo, and Luna.  But these figures can still understate the need, especially from unemployment. Frontier counties are disproportionately elderly and have large disabled populations because available jobs are often in high-injury fields like mining, agriculture, and forestry.

The 4-county study region’s food banks get much of their food from the USDA’s The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Incoming food goes to a central location, Albuquerque in New Mexico, for distribution to regional centers.  Southwest New Mexico’s is in Las Cruces, 450 miles round-trip to transport the supply. The food miles add up. The next step is getting the food to each county for distribution to local food pantries–120 to 400 miles round-trip depending on the county. Food is distributed once a month and must reach people across 17,000 square miles– about double the area of New Jersey or Massachusetts.

The USDA and food banks want to provide nutritious food, but they are dependent on their own contributors, including donors like Walmart, Kroger, and Kellogg. Local frontier food pantries have few other sources to tap given their few grocery stores. Other sources of donations, food drives or rescued food, are scarce. Also scarce are the means to collect, store, and distribute donations, the volunteers, vehicles, facility with refrigeration for safe storage.

To obtain food for your family from the local pantry, probably in a church basement or parking lot, means showing up on the right day and time once a month for your box. Most often there is no choice of day or time because the pantry has no storage facility. That box should hold enough to get you through a month (although many report it only lasts two weeks). It may be heavy. If you are disabled, how will you lift it into your car or pick-up truck? You might have help at the pantry, but what happens when you get home? What kind of storage facilities do you have? How can fresh produce survive a month? How do you ration it?

Emergency supplies are whatever comes in. It may be cranberries and pasta, but boxes have contained flavored waters, heavily frosted, smashed cakes, and five-pound bladders of ketchup. Sanitation requirements prohibit pantries from breaking that 5-pounds of ketchup into something more reasonable. And large donors get tax credit based on weight, so those 5-gallon ketchups are more valuable to them than the equivalent nutritional value in carrots.

Beyond asking children about food insecurity, we need to see that those in the most remote locations are properly fed. We need strategies for overcoming frontier distance, scant food retailers, and weak infrastructure. We need more USDA funding to capture local conditions and targeted to increasing central facilities and distribution sites’ storage, preferably with substantial refrigeration. We need more drivers and vehicles, and that requires addressing insurance costs, increasing vehicle availability and facilitating multi-purpose deliveries. We need more frequent distribution options. We need a larger and more nutritious food supply. Children on the frontier shouldn’t go hungry.


Deborah Popper teaches geography at City University of New York’s College of Staten Island and Princeton University. She is on the governing boards of the American Geographical Society and National Center for Frontier Communities and a member of its Writers . Susan Wilger is Associate Director of the National Center for Frontier Communities and author of NCFC Health Impact Assessment report.

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