The Demographics of Hunger in Colorado

February 7, 2022

Everybody’s gotta eat – so why is it that when looking at the demographics of hunger in Colorado, the numbers for food insecurity and hunger across age, race/ethnicity, and locality differ so much? 

Hunger and food insecurity are a result of hundreds of factors including but not limited to: debt, joblessness, sickness and hospitalization, lack of access to nutritious food, systemic disadvantage, and any combination of things that may make prioritizing food over other necessities a difficult choice. 

We are going to look at some of the demographics of hunger in Colorado to better understand the groups at the highest risk of experiencing hunger and the factors that are causing this disparity. 

The most recent survey for hunger by Hunger Free Colorado showed that in April 2021, about 29% of people who identified as white were experiencing food insecurity, but that number shoots up to 43% for those that are Non-white/Latinx. 

Percentage of respondents who were food insecure Jan. – April 2021, based on the USDA 6-question food insecurity survey. Source:
Hunger Free Colorado COVID Food Insecurity Survey, April 2021

A primary reason for the difference in food insecurity is the racial disparity in poverty in America, with the overall poverty rate in the US at 11.4% overall, but 19.5% in the Black community. When a household is already struggling to afford all their necessities, additional challenges, such as being furloughed during the pandemic, can often lead to those families sacrificing food first in order to continue to afford rent or medicine. 

We also see this with longstanding, systemic issues for food access. When looking at a map of grocers that carry fresh produce, you may notice a pattern of stores clustered together in higher-income neighborhoods. 

While there are many ways to define a food desert, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) Working Group considers a food desert as a “low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”

This can be simplified to asking the question, is there a supermarket or large grocery store within 1 mile of my residence? For rural counties, this radius is extended to ten miles. If you answered no, chances are you are in an area considered a food desert. If you are in a mid-to-high level income area you are not in a food desert because you likely have a vehicle to drive the distance to the store at a cost insignificant to yourself. 

The term food apartheid is often used in place of food desert, as supermarkets and grocery stores are strategically placed in areas with higher-income households. In Denver, an example would be the Globeville & Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods. Because this area has historically had more industry and less commercial development, it has remained a cheaper area to live in the city and has a higher population of low-income residents, thus remaining underserved in food resources. 

Volunteers prepare bags of food to place in vehicles at a Mobile Food Market in September 2021.

Areas like this are also called food swamps, because of the high number of fast food, liquor, and convenience stores in place of supermarkets. Cheap and non-nutritious food is more accessible than fresh food, making it the reliable choice for families who can’t afford to travel farther for better food or don’t have access to transportation. 

With the rate of poverty correlating to racial inequities in the country, it becomes clear how food resources become divided along racial lines as well. 

What may come as a surprise, however, is that food insecurity is also different among age brackets. In Colorado, more than 50% of those under 44 reported experiencing food insecurity in April 2021. Those between the ages of 35 and 44 were hit the hardest, with food insecurity levels reaching a staggering 55%. The group least affected are those 65+, with only 5% experiencing food insecurity. 

One of the largest factors affecting these age brackets is that many of these individuals are taking care of children. Among households with children, 30% of adults reported having to regularly cut back or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money to buy food, and 44% were unable to consistently put healthy food on the table. 

So what about children? In Colorado, about 1 in 5 children are not getting adequate nutrition. These are record-breaking numbers for the state, with pre-pandemic numbers sitting at 1 in 9 children. 

An even more shocking fact is that the National Summer Food Service Program reaches fewer than 1 in 10 children in Colorado in need. Many families are experiencing food insecurity during challenging economic times and aren’t accessing the resources they are qualified to receive.

Another key factor in food insecurity is where an individual lives. Prior to the pandemic, the numbers in 2019 showed that rural Coloradans were experiencing food insecurity at a rate of about 12% in comparison to urban Coloradans at 9.3%, and if you were between 19-25, rural Coloradans experienced food insecurity at 25.4%.

A child runs to her family at the Garden Place Academy Mobile Food Market in 2021.

If you look at any demographic, no matter age or race, if the individual lives in a rural area, the levels of food insecurity increase. For people living in rural areas, food insecurity is often attributed to less economic opportunity and transportation barriers, as well as less access to food resources like food pantries, community gardens, and more. 

Most published surveys of hunger and food insecurity at the end of 2021 have been small-scale surveys, with more data covering the last half of 2021 expected in the next few months. The consequential COVID-19 variants and mandates may have affected these numbers, and the Great Resignation might change this narrative as well. 

With all of this data, it is important to understand that hunger is tied to many socio-economic factors, and it looks different in every community across the United States. Not only that, but every community will have different solutions to combat these issues. 

Our solution is to recover quality, unused food from the food industry and deliver it free of charge to food pantries, soup kitchens, schools, and shelters serving those in need. Our Mobile Food Markets serve our community directly with free food up to 8 times a month. By recovering food, we are tackling both food waste and food insecurity around Denver. 

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