More Kentucky homes deal with hunger than the national average, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

For the period 2016-18, a recent report found nearly 12% of American households struggled to meet their food needs consistently. By comparison, Kentucky's rate was nearly 15%.

Although higher than the national rate, the state's percentage improved about 3% from the 2013-15 report.

"We are encouraged to see movement in the right direction on hunger in Kentucky," said Feeding Kentucky Executive Director Tamara Sandberg. "We must continue to work together to close the hunger gap. It is unacceptable that any Kentuckian would struggle to put food on the table — let alone one in seven."

The Trump administration proposed a change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that could hurt the small amount of progress Kentucky made in recent years, she said.

In July, USDA officials proposed "closing a loophole" that allows recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to automatically be eligible for SNAP. The change is "aimed at helping families move towards self-sufficiency," an agency press release said.

"For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in the press release.

As a result, the release said, states' SNAP programs grew out of control.

About 10 years ago, the Ohio County Food Pantry opened. That county seems to buck the trend of fewer Kentucky households needing assistance in recent years.

"It's getting worse," said Rebecca Baird, the food bank's secretary/treasurer. "Our numbers have been steadily increasing by 10 to 20 families a month."

In particular, volunteers have noticed an uptick in the number of elderly people who need assistance, she said.

Former Help Office Executive Director Woody Woodward echoed her comments. He told the Messenger-Inquirer in February that the Owensboro nonprofit was seeing a steady increase in the number of local residents who came to the office asking for food. According to past records, the Help Office saw an 8% to 10% annual increase during each of the past five years.

Woodward was struck by the increasing number of working families who couldn't make ends meet.

Nonprofits, such as the Ohio County Food Pantry and Help Office, have helped move the needle on hunger in Kentucky, Sandberg said. But they can't do it alone.

"The problem is not that we don't have enough food. ... The problem has been connecting the people who need it with the food that is available," she said.

However, the state is making progress in that regard. Food banks collect unsold items from retailers and work hard on distribution before food spoils. In addition, innovative programs, such as Farms to Food Banks, connects farmers with nonprofits dedicated to getting food where it is needed quickly.

"And, in Kentucky, public-private partnerships, such as the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's Hunger Initiative, have worked to increase the cold storage capacity of the food bank network so food banks are able to safely store and redistribute a large volume of donated agricultural products," Sandberg said.

Hunger is directly related to poverty. As the economy improves, it serves to reason food insecurity rates should decline.

"But what we see on the front lines of the fight against hunger in Kentucky is that too many Kentuckians are still struggling to get by. A layoff at work, a car accident or an illness can suddenly force a family to choose between food and paying bills. One bad month can be enough to leave a family needing help from a food bank ... ," Sandberg said.

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

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