OGDEN — A first-of-its-kind study in Weber County found that food insecurity in the area has increased since 2018, with children there more likely to suffer from hunger than those throughout the rest of the state.
And the situation is only expected to worsen due to the pandemic. Now, nearly 1 in 5 children in the county identifies as food insecure, compared to 1 in 8 statewide.
Current projections show that while 15% of residents in the county overall face food insecurity, there will be an increase in food insecurity of 23% for adults and 38% for children there due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the assessment by the Ogden Civic Action Network at Weber State University.
The group identified 11 food deserts in the area, all but one of them in Ogden "despite the presence of several retailers that sell nutritious foods as well as the availability of emergency and community resources," researchers wrote.
Researchers said that some neighborhoods, especially in North and West Ogden, have "little to no access" to public transit or infrastructure conducive to pedestrians, making it more difficult for residents to access healthy and "culturally relevant" foods. Since 2016-19, the community also saw a decrease in the use of the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as SNAP, according to the study. The use of food pantries, however, increased.
"The threshold set by the state for SNAP may be impacting county residents' food security since over half of food insecure Weber County residents were above Utah's threshold for SNAP," researchers wrote. Utah requires SNAP recipients to make less than 130% of the federal poverty level, which is $26,500 for a family of four. That means a family of four would need to make less than $34,190 per year to qualify. Many children who could receive free and reduced-cost school meals also aren't using the program, according to the study.
Between 2011 and 2018, the average cost of a meal in the county rose by 23.4%, while food budgets decreased by 2.78%, researchers said.
The "abundance of junk foods" compared to healthy food in areas identified as food swamps also make it difficult for families to form healthy eating happens, "especially for immigrant families who would like to serve and eat traditional foods," according to the study.
"Households that make below a livable wage in Ogden City are constrained in their ability to maintain a healthy diet. The rapidly increasing costs of rent and utilities, as well as childcare costs, make it difficult for low-income families to cover other expenses, such as food. This is especially true for parent(s) who work multiple jobs, single parents, and/or lower-income residents," researchers wrote.
One potential solution for combating food insecurity in Weber County, according to the study, is for food assistance programs to offer education courses to help residents in the largely food-insecure East Central neighborhood — 20th Street to 30th Street between Washington Boulevard and Harrison Boulevard — to improve their cooking abilities. The researchers described low confidence in cooking skills as an impediment to families in preparing healthy meals.
The researchers also called for community leaders to partner with "corner stores" like convenience and drug stores to encourage them to offer more healthy options. They also called for more community representation, especially in the East Central neighborhood, on vacant lot and road development proposals.
Emily Esplin, team coordinator and network facilitator for the project, said in a statement that the study also showed a major need for a centralized food policy council in the area, which would serve as a "community hub" for identifying needs within the food system.
"We want all residents of Ogden's East Central Neighborhood to be able to access, prepare and eat nutritious foods of their choice. We developed our research questions figuring out what we already know from research people have already done. This is a main needs assessment that is countywide," Esplin said.
The Department of Workforce Services recently announced another round of federal Pandemic EBT funding for families struggling to afford food. Money is already being distributed to families with children in their schools' free and reduced-cost meal programs. Those who aren't already in the free and reduced-price school meal program, if eligible, can sign up through their schools by May 10 and receive Pandemic EBT funding for the 2020-21 school year. Eligibility information is found at benefits.gov/benefit/1991.