Local economic development officials are familiar with a variety of measures of a community’s economic condition. Most of these measures are based on trend data such as sales taxes, housing values or new construction, or building or hotel vacancy rates. Feeding America, a non-profit representing the nation’s food banks, is spearheading an innovative alternative that measures economic activity on the basis of whether it generates enough resources to feed everyone in the community.
Critics of traditional economic measures argue that the data represent only one side of the economic condition in a community—that is, the side of positive business activity. Without balancing such information against community needs, critics would say decision-makers have only half the picture.
Feeding America’s measure is based off of efforts pioneered by local food assistance nonprofits in the northwest. It is called ‘mapping the meal gap.’ The gap represents the difference between what resources are available in a community versus what is needed, using meals as a yardstick. In a simplified form, all resources available to be used to provide meals (a share of household income, social benefits, non-profit assistance and the like) are subtracted from all resources needed to provide three meals a day to each person in the community, using average meal costs under a thrifty meal plan developed by the U.S. federal government.
The gap can be reduced by economic activity, but only if the level of needs is reduced, stable, or at least growing more slowly. If needs are growing more quickly than economic activity, the community actually could be losing ground. The ‘meal gap’ approach tries to tie both economic growth and weakness together for a more complete picture.
Feeding America has been able to produce these data for every county in the US using an interactive map found on their web site. Other organizations are developing similar but more refined approaches in different states, including the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. For more on the economic impact of food programs, see this prior post.
Maureen Berner is a School of Government faculty member.