Food insecurity rates were generally trending downward in Whitman and Latah counties, but the COVID-19 pandemic reversed those improvements on the Palouse and across the country, according to projections made by Feeding America.

Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief and food recovery organization in the U.S., recently released its annual Map the Meal Gap report, which identifies food insecurity rates and food costs at the local level in the U.S.

Feeding America’s website says that food insecurity, defined as the lack of access to sufficient food because of limited financial resources, was the lowest it had been in more than 20 years in the country before the pandemic.

In Whitman County, the food insecurity rate dropped from 18.3 percent, or 8,760 people, in 2017 to 13.8 percent, or 6,800 people, in 2019. Feeding America projected the county’s rate to be 15.2 percent in 2020 and 14.5 percent this year.

In Latah County, the rate decreased from 16.7 percent, or 6,480 people, in 2017 to 11.4 percent, or 4,520 people, in 2019. Feeding America estimated the county’s rate to be 13.3 percent in 2020 and 12.7 percent in 2021.

Idaho’s 2019 food insecurity rate was 10 percent, or 179,580 people, while Washington’s was 10.4 percent, or 790,050 people.

Sarah Kane, nutrition manager for Council on Aging and Human Services in Colfax, said the number of people using food pantries increased in 2020 in many rural Whitman County towns, like Tekoa, Oakesdale and Garfield. She said the Colfax pantry experienced a decline in visitors last year.

Kane said the Colfax-based nonprofit organization, which offers transportation and nutrition services, helps oversee the 12 food pantries in Whitman County and runs the one in Colfax.

“Our logic is that the outlying communities may have been hit harder by the lack of jobs,” Kane said.

For example, she said many people in Tekoa work in Spokane, which was greatly affected economically by the pandemic.

Kane said the Colfax pantry is starting to see a slight increase in visitors.

Linda Nickels, director of the Moscow Food Bank, said she noticed a spike in foot traffic at the start of the pandemic but it has died down since. She said people were coming to the food bank to stock up on food and supplies like hand sanitizer and toilet paper when the pandemic began.

“Now it seems to be increasing more since people are getting more comfortable being out and about, especially older folks,” Nickels said.

Plus, she said people’s COVID-19 relief benefits are declining so they might be in need of food.

Cabeza can be reached at (208) 883-4631, or by email to gcabeza@dnews.com.

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