More Okeechobeeans becoming ‘food-insecure,’ food bank says

OKEECHOBEE — While more affluent people on the Treasure Coast face higher food costs than do Okeechobee County residents, more of the people living here are becoming “food-insecure” and falling deeper into poverty, according to the Treasure Coast Food Bank’s report of new study data released this week.

Feeding America is the nation’s largest hunger relief charity, and TCFB is one of its 200 members. That organization, in collaboration with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and The Nielsen Company, has updated for 2018 its “Map the Meal Gap” annual study begun in 2011. This year, it found that the average cost of a meal in TCFB’s four counties is up 8 cents to $3.33, well over the statewide average of $3.17 — although in Okeechobee County the average cost is 5 cents below the state figure and the lowest among the TCFB counties (the food bank also serves Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties).

Fully 15 percent of the population here, however, is food-insecure (not knowing where the next meal is coming from), second-highest among the four (in St. Lucie, it’s 15.7 percent). That figure ranks Okeechobee County 35th out of the state’s 67 counties. And 85 percent of those people qualify based on income alone for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, also called food stamps) and other federal nutrition programs.

This means more people are qualifying for benefits because their incomes are not keeping up with inflation. It also means 15 percent of the food-insecure citizens in Okeechobee County don’t qualify for SNAP and thus often must rely on charities to help them meet basic needs because they need better wages and employment opportunities, food bank officials explain.

“Many of these are working poor who often work more than one job, but because of the high cost of living and low wages still need help to put food on their tables,” said Judith Cruz, president and CEO of Treasure Coast Food Bank.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the county’s population at 41,605 as of July 1, 2017, with 20.2 percent (8,404 people) defined as being “in poverty” according to its criteria. The number of food stamp recipients in Okeechobee County is 8,500 (or 4,268 households) as of March 2018, said TCFB Chief Strategy & Advocacy Officer Krista Garofalo, citing statistics from the Florida Department of Children and Families.

So, while this means that more people are receiving benefits than are considered food-insecure, she explained, it’s actually those SNAP benefits that probably are the lifeline keeping them from falling further into poverty.

“SNAP does keep many families food-secure and allows them to put food on their tables,” she said. Just under $1 million was paid out in benefits to those 8,500 people in March, DCF reports. “Some families may consider themselves food-secure in part because they do receive enough in SNAP benefits to eat decently.”

TCFB estimates the food budget shortage per person per week at $17.58, for a total shortfall of $3.1 million or 1,008,200 meals.

And it’s even worse for children in this county, nearly a quarter of whom (24.7 percent) don’t know where their next meal will come from. Okeechobee is among the top 20 counties in Florida with the highest child food insecurity rates, ranking 16th of 67. And while 87 percent of those children live in households qualifying for SNAP benefits, 13 percent don’t.

These bleak statistics come at a time when officials on the federal level have been calling for reductions in food assistance programs and, according to TCFB, “underscore the depth of need that remains in communities on the Treasure Coast.”

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