Hunger in the Ozarks

In order to solve hunger in the Ozarks, we first must understand it. Who faces hunger? Where do they live? How do they cope?

If you had to choose between food and gas for your car, or between food and the roof over your head, what would you choose? Every day, those served by Ozarks Food Harvest and its network are forced to make these tough choices.

The Food Bank continually strives for a better understanding of hunger. Ongoing studies — administered by the nation’s food bank network, Feeding America, the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security and Feeding Missouri — explain where people encountering hunger live, specific hardships they face and strategies families use to cope with food insecurity.

  • 64%

    of households served have low food security

    meaning reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet

  • $25k

    is the average annual household income

    of 89% of households served by Ozarks Food Harvest and its network

  • 41%

    of households served by Ozarks Food Harvest

    must choose between paying for food or utilities

Food Assistance & Hunger in the Heartland

The University of Missouri in partnership with Feeding Missouri conducted a 3-year study, Food Assistance & Hunger in the Heartland 2021 that illustrates the critical role food banks and pantries play in supplying food to families struggling with hunger. The report was prepared for Feeding Missouri, the state coalition representing Missouri food banks, using survey data obtained from the six Feeding America food banks in Missouri including Ozarks Food Harvest.


Ozarks Food Harvest client households face tough choices to make ends meet

  • 41% had to choose between food and utilities
  • 36% of households had to choose between paying for food and medicine/medical care
  • 29% had to choose between paying for food and transportation
  • 28% had to choose between paying for food and housing

Hunger impacts a wide range of people in the Ozarks

  • 36% of households have at least one working adult
  • 89% of households have an annual income of $25,000 or less (61% make less than $15,000)
  • 42% of households have at least one adult over the age of 65 (one of the largest demographic increases seen in Ozarks Food Harvest’s history)
  • 32% have at least one child under the age of 18
  • 88% of clients served are white/Caucasian
  • 81% have a high-school degree or higher level of education
  • 18% include a military veteran

Food insecure clients can face significant health issues

  • 64% of households served purchased the least expensive food in the past 12 months, even if it wasn’t the healthiest option
  • 41% have a member with diabetes or pre-diabetes
  • 60% have a member with high blood pressure
  • 39% have a member with no health insurance of any kind

There are significant gaps between those who are eligible for safety net programs and those who participate

  • 74% of households served have incomes that make them eligible for SNAP, but only 46% participate
  • 44% of households with children 5 and under used WIC in the previous year
  • 67% with children under 18 participate in free or reduced-price breakfast or lunch

In the Ozarks, food insecurity rates are “dramatically higher” than all Missouri households. This study showed that 64% of households have low food security (reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet). Of that, 30% of these households have very low food security (truly don’t have enough food to meet their needs). Finally, 52% of households served get at least half of their monthly food from a food pantry. Read full study here.

This information helped us better understand the challenges our neighbors face. The data was collected during the pandemic when federal and charitable assistance was readily available. Today, economic uncertainty, inflation and high food costs mean that many of these families face even more hardships.

Ozarks Food Harvest Awards $1 million in Grants

Ozarks Food Harvest and its network of 270 partners span one third of the state of Missouri. The Food Assistance Hunger in the Heartland report found that Ozarks Food Harvest provides more than 70% of all the charitable food distributed within the 28 counties we serve. We also learned that more than half of these food pantries have no paid staff and rely entirely on volunteers. Ninety-six percent of the pantries said there would be a “major effect” if they no longer received food from Ozarks Food Harvest.

The study surveyed what partner charities needed from Ozarks Food Harvest. How could we better serve them? For example, twenty five percent of charities reported a critical need for improved or additional refrigeration and freezer units. When Ozarks Food Harvest’s Board of Directors learned this, they immediately released funds for the urgent needs of our network. An emergency investment was granted to help get families on the road to recovery now.

A total of 74 charities were awarded $1 million in grants. In addition to freezers and coolers these grants will be used to purchase additional food and other infrastructure items to help feed more children, families and seniors. See the complete listing here.

The Future of the Community’s Food System

A strategic response is needed in order to ensure charities in our hunger-relief network have the capacity to continue helping their neighbors in need. In addition to $1 million in grant funds, Ozarks Food Harvest’s Board of Directors has already committed to free food delivery to The Food Bank’s 270 charities to offset increased inflationary costs that were not present when this data was collected. These investments will change the future of our community’s food system.

This is part of a multi-faceted strategy by The Food Bank to address new needs identified in the University of Missouri’s report. Ozarks Food Harvest’s response includes increasing deliveries through its Mobile Food Pantry program, increasing production and distribution of nutrient-dense food through its Full Circle Gardens program and increasing food distributed to seniors through its Senior Produce program.