Wake Forest University School of Medicine researchers have found high rates of hunger in surveys of immigrant Latino families in eastern and western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia and Forsyth County.
"Although the United States enjoys a relative lack of hunger, there are segments of the N.C. population - Latino immigrants - with hunger more severe than areas of persistent poverty like Appalachia," said Sara A. Quandt, Ph.D.
The overall hunger rate for the U.S. is 4.3 percent. The Wake Forest surveys found that rates of hunger among Latino immigrants ranged from almost twice the national rate (8 percent) to more than eight times the national rate (35.6 percent). The results were reported in the October issue of the Journal of Nutrition.
"About 40 percent of the respondents in each study reported worrying that food would run out and that food bought would not last," said Quandt, the lead author. That combination, less severe than "hunger," is viewed as "food insecurity" and includes such actions as relying on just a few kinds of food and cutting meal size for children and adults.
Quandt and her colleagues found that "food insecurity" ranged from 35.6 percent to 41.8 percent in the four surveys, compared to 13.3 percent in the United States.
Besides Forsyth County, the other surveys included two conducted in eastern North Carolina in Harnett, Johnston, Sampson and Wake counties (one also included Duplin County) and the fourth in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery and Watauga counties of western North Carolina and Carroll, Smyth and Grayson counties in Virginia.
"More than 25 percent of respondents in each study reported that their children were not eating enough because of lack of money to buy food," the researchers reported.
"In many ways, the experience of Latino immigrants of hunger is the same as non-immigrants - they are hungry despite working and earning wages," said Quandt, professor of public health sciences. "They are often ashamed to have others know they are in trouble. They do whatever they can to protect their children from suffering, and they don't really know where to turn for help.
"But in one significant way, they differ from non-immigrants - most cannot turn to the U.S. government's food safety net - the food stamp program."
In Forsyth, 15.8 percent of those surveyed reported children had had to go all day without food in the past year and 21.8 percent reported that children were hungry because they couldn't afford more food. And yet the researchers also found that only 12.9 percent of those in Forsyth reported receiving food from a food pantry compared to 25 percent of those in eastern North Carolina.
The immigrants in the mountain counties are better off because of the year-round nature of the Christmas tree industry, but specific data on participation in food programs wasn't collected.
There is some other help available. About 60 percent of those in eastern North Carolina participated in the WIC (Women, Infant, and Children) program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, compared to 40 percent in Forsyth County. More than 60 percent of survey participants both in eastern North Carolina and Forsyth participated in the school lunch program.
Quandt said the data showed the rates of hunger and food insecurity were considerably above nationally collected statistics among the general population, among Hispanics alone, and other low-income populations.
"Compared with the rest of the world, the United States enjoys relative freedom from food insecurity and hunger," Quandt said. "National data showed that 82.4 percent of U.S. households with children were food secure, 13.3 percent were food insecure without hunger and 4.3 percent reported hunger."
She added, "Policy makers need to reconsider access to food programs in the light of the levels of food insecurity and hunger and its short- and long-term consequences."