In Wisconsin, 12.5% of children are facing hunger. In La Crosse County, the number is only slightly lower at 11.1%.
According to Feeding America, in 2020 8.1% of local residents — among all ages — were food insecure, with the statewide rate 7.14%. The annual food budget shortfall for La Crosse is $5.3 million, with the state short $205 million.
The pandemic — and inflation — continue to put strain on grocery bills, and Gundersen Health System notes that without adequate nutrition, the health and wellness of a person can be at risk. Local food pantries provide thousands of meals to residents — WAFER alone distributes around 14,000 food bundles annually — but with prices spiking families formerly able to donate to may no longer have the finances to do so.
“Not only are we seeing more people showing up at food pantries needing food, but we’re also seeing fewer donations,” says Carla Nelson, wellness education specialist at Gundersen.
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According to the United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) initiative, more than 40% of La Crosse County households are on the verge of financial insecurity — as are 63% of families in the City of La Crosse — and 11% countywide live in poverty.
Hunger and food insecurity are different but sometimes overlapping concepts, with the former a physical sensation and the latter “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life,” per the USDA. The American Action Forum notes, “Food insecurity is not only defined by having insufficient amounts of food, but also a diet that is lacking in quality, variety, or desirability.”
Unfortunately, the cost of nutritious, fresh foods like fruits, vegetables and dairy is usually higher than the price of processed meals and snacks, many of which have limited vitamin and nutrient content and high amounts of salt, sugar and fat. Malnutrition can lead to short term effects like lack of focus and energy, or long term consequences like heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Those living in “food deserts,” with no close access to a grocery store, can face nutritional issues even if they can afford food and consume enough calories.
“Fresh produce can be expensive, so sometimes it’s easier to buy highly processed foods that are a little bit more budget friendly,” Nelson said. “As a result, we’re seeing that people who are eating these processed foods have a higher chance of obesity, therefore leading to the more long-term health impacts.”
Gundersen is able to assist patients facing food security through its team of community resource connector volunteers. Members use the Community Link database to identify resources in the individual’s neighborhood.
“There are resources available. We all need help sometimes, and it’s OK to reach out for help if you’re in need of food resources,” says Nelson.
Persons can also call 211 or visit communitylink.findhelp.com for assistance with food insecurity. Information on WAFER can be found at https://waferlacrosse.org or by calling 608-782-6003. The Hunger Task Force of La Crosse can be reached at https://lacrossehtf.org/ or 608-793-1002.