A study released this week by the hunger relief organization Feeding America estimates that Minnesotans struggling with hunger collectively miss almost 100 million meals each year.
The study says, nationwide, hungry people would need $21.3 billion to fill the gap in their food budgets.
Work in Minnesota inspired the study. Rob Zeaske and his colleagues at Second Harvest Heartland food bank were looking for a better way to understand who needs help.
"Traditionally we've measured hunger by who comes in for help, by who comes into a food shelf or who comes into a soup kitchen," Zeaske said. "The attempt was — how do we make a better estimate of who's out there needing assistance, and how badly, but might not be getting help?"
Feeding America ran with that idea. The national study they released Thursday does two things that hadn't been done before. It estimates the number of people struggling with hunger in each U.S. county. And it puts a number on how many meals people are missing.
"I would say it's a tool for how people can really understand what are the needs in every community, and how do you actually identify closing the gap around the need," said Vicki Escarra, the CEO of Feeding America.
Feeding America researchers relied on census figures, which show 50.2 million Americans live in homes that struggle to get enough food. They took into account things like poverty and unemployment — and then estimated how many people they think are at risk for hunger in each county.
On the census form, people also noted how much money they'd need to adequately feed their families. So researchers looked at how much meals cost in each county. From there, they were able to estimate how many meals people were missing.
While many times people are skipping meals altogether, sometimes they are eating a poor substitute for a meal, like a bag of chips.
According to the study, the five Minnesota counties with the highest rates of people struggling with hunger are Clearwater, Wadena, Mille Lacs, Pine and Kanabec.
In Kanabec County, 90 minutes north of the Twin Cities, County Commissioner Kim Smith was not surprised. Smith is quick with an explanation: unemployment. At 14.3 percent, it's the second-highest in the state.
"We have woods, we have rivers, we have lakes. It's great for vacationing. We just don't have the jobs," Smith said.
Many people drive more than 60 miles each way for a job. And Smith said lots of people in Kanabec County worked in construction — on housing developments.
"That just completely died. So all these contractors who did that kind of work are pretty much out of a job," Smith said.
He said that left many people in need. One problem in Kanabec County is that, according to the Feeding America estimates, 24 percent of the people struggling with hunger in Kanabec make too much money to qualify for federal food assistance. But they still can't always afford to feed their families. After other bills, there's not much left for food.
Dave Anderson, who runs a hot meal program once a week, sees those people.
"Some people tell me this is the one time a week they eat something that's real, maybe in between they eat ramen noodles or mac and cheese, whatever they can get for almost nothing," Anderson said.
Anderson lets everyone come no matter their income and he sees the demand for help other places, too.
"Two blocks from me there is a food shelf, and they wrap around the building to try to get in when it opens," he said.
Leaders in the hunger fight hope that Feeding America's study will spark some help for counties like this. After similar work from Second Harvest Heartland, several Minnesotan counties started conversations with corporate, civic, and nonprofit leaders, bringing people together for a conversation around the data in their community.
And, said Rob Zeaske, of Second Harvest Heartland, the study may even allow communities to predict hunger in the future. Now there's a formula for how factors like unemployment affect hunger.
"In certain counties where unemployment may be expected to spike, we can have some sort of understanding of how many meals might be necessary to be there for those people during their time of need, in that location," Zeaske said.
Meanwhile, Zeaske and his colleagues are working to make sure all of Minnesota's 583,710 people who currently struggle with hunger get three square meals a day.