One in 6 Tarrant County residents can't afford to eat enough healthy meals, but many of those people do not qualify for government nutrition-assistance programs, a new report says.
Nearly half of people considered "food-insecure" in Tarrant County make too much money to get food stamps yet must forgo nutritious meals to pay for other necessities, such as housing and medical bills, according to Map the Meal Gap, a report by Feeding America, the largest U.S. hunger-relief agency.
More than 291,000 people in Tarrant County are food-insecure. The Agriculture Department defines food insecurity as lacking access at times to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy lifestyle.
Any degree of food insecurity can lead to chronic hunger and malnutrition, the report says.
It is the first community-level breakdown of national food needs, its authors say.
It is revealing because it shows that poverty and hunger are not necessarily the same thing, said Bo Soderbergh, executive director of the Tarrant Area Food Bank.
"This identifies a potential population that has an income that is considerably higher than the official poverty level," Soderbergh said. "The problem is much more in our neighborhoods than we think."
The gap has been seen in suburban areas where income tends to be higher. Food pantries in Northeast Tarrant County say they are fielding requests for help from people making too much to qualify for public food programs.
"We see it every day," said Paula Jernigan, executive director of the Mission Central Food Pantry in Hurst. "We're seeing people who still have jobs but had their hours cut back or used to have jobs where they got overtime pay but now are just getting 40 hours a week. They're professional people."
Traditionally, the number of people living below federal poverty levels was used to gauge the need for food. However, Meal Gap found that 45 percent of those struggling with "domestic hunger" have incomes above the poverty level.
The organization analyzed food prices and statistics collected by the Agriculture Department, the Census Bureau and other agencies, officials said.
In Tarrant County, 17.1 percent of residents are food-insecure, more than in Denton, Johnson and Parker counties. Dallas County's percentage is 18.9; the state's is 17.8.
To qualify for food stamps, households generally cannot earn more than 130 percent of the poverty level, the study found. In 2009, that was $28,665 a year for a family of four.
The number of Texans on food stamps has risen from 2.8 million in 2009 to 3.6 million in 2011.
In Tarrant County, 48 percent of the food-insecure did not qualify for food stamps, according to the study's formula. And 41 percent didn't qualify for other public nutritional programs that accept people with higher incomes.
They must depend on private hunger-relief agencies such as food banks and church-related programs.
'Ready to help'
Families who need food assistance but don't qualify for government programs tend to consist of younger adults with children, said Greg Noone, co-director of the food pantry at Harvest Church in Watauga.
The church, which helps about 90 people a month, is used to seeing older clients on fixed incomes.
Younger families that don't get public assistance aren't chronically hungry but tend to turn to the food pantry in emergencies, he said.
"The majority of our clients would prefer not to have to ask for assistance, and I would say it's even more so for people who don't qualify for programs," Noone said. "For whatever reason, money is tight this month. Even though they didn't consider themselves needy, they don't have all the food they need."
At Mission Central Food Pantry, volunteers consider not only a family's income level but also its spending, Jernigan said. The pantry serves Hurst, Euless and Bedford and saw the number of families it assists each month jump from about 250 to 315 early this year.
"We don't want anybody in the community to go hungry, so we are ready to help," she said.
The Tarrant Area Food Bank will distribute about 26 million pounds of food this year, Soderbergh said. He hopes that the study will be a blueprint for agencies.
"I think that understanding the problem makes it easier to know to whom you should address your effort," he said. "We need to get the message out there that even though you may be apparently solidly middle-class, there is help out there in an emergency."
Alex Branch, 817-390-7689