Only 6.9% of Lyon County's population of 8,000 participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, that serves as an "important health intervention" across Kentucky, states a recent report. That ranks 10th lowest of the state's 120 counties.
A 13-page report titled "SNAP Is Good for Kentuckians' Health," released in October by Berea-based Kentucky Center for Economic Policy (KCEP), indicates 555 Lyon Countians participated in SNAP as of September and spent $55,517 on groceries through the program.
Just two other counties, Robertson and Carlisle, had fewer residents on food stamps - 297 and 546, respectively. Only Robertson County's 2,100 or so residents spent less, though 13.9% of them utilize SNAP. Meantime, nearly $9 million was spent in Kentucky's largest county, Jefferson.
Food insecurity has been cut almost in half in Lyon County from three years ago, when data showed 12.9% of the county, or 1,080 residents, was food insecure.
Food insecurity can refer to not having enough food to eat or not having the resources to eat preferable, more nutritious food, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
But Barbara Whitfield, director of HOPE of Lyon County Food Bank, said SNAP and the food pantry stand between between dozens of local residents and hunger. The food bank serves about 235 families in Lyon County with two distributions offered each month.
"I think many people may be surprised at the need," Whitfield said. "Lyon County is wonderful about giving, though."
Kentucky overall has the eighth-highest rate of food insecurity in the country, while more than 506,000 Kentuckians, including children, receive help with groceries through SNAP as of September. The level of food insecurity ranges from about 1 in 13 for Oldham County near Louisville to 1 in 4 in Magoffin County, located in eastern Kentucky, noted KCEP.
"Food insecurity -- it does show up in every single county in Kentucky, so it's not just a rural or an urban problem," Tamara Sandberg, executive director for Feeding Kentucky, said. "It's not a problem in just Appalachia. It's every county, but we do know that children and seniors are disproportionately impacted by hunger, so the rate of food insecurity among children is even worse than it is among adults."
The KCEP report shows research associates food insecurity with an array of health problems, such as higher rates of diabetes, chronic illnesses and hypertension, as well as poor mental health, sleep and oral health.
It states food insecure children are more likely to experience anemia, tooth decay, asthma, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation than peers who aren't food insecure, while seniors' health also can be affected.
"Research has shown that SNAP reduces food insecurity by anywhere between 16 and 30%," said Dustin Pugel, KCEP analyst and report author. "The result of that is that it ameliorates the health consequences associated with food insecurity."
Food insecurity-related health issues are also linked to increased health care costs.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates indicate food insecurity was associated with $1,834 in health care spending "per food insecure adult nationally" in 2016, while Kentucky spent $854.7 million on food insecurity-related health care costs that year, according to the KCEP report.
The total estimated health care cost in Lyon County was $1.4 million for 2016.
The KCEP report notes SNAP participants reportedly spend about 25% less on health care annually than similar adults who don't participate.
They also self-reported better health and were less likely to stay home sick, visit the doctor or not get care because of its cost.
It can also benefit the economy.
Angela Cooper, state and education outreach director for Kentucky Voices for Health, a nonprofit and nonpartisan coalition, said every SNAP dollar that a household redeems can help expand the economy by as much as $1.70.
She stressed that SNAP benefits are 100% funded by the federal government.
"It's money that Kentucky taxpayers send to Washington and we need to get back as much of it as we possible can for Kentuckians," she added. "The census plays a really important role in that, so we're coming up on our decennial census in 2020. It's going to be April 1 and getting an accurate census count is incredibly important to how many SNAP dollars we get for the state, among many other federal programs."
The entire KCEP report by Pugel, featuring interactive maps, analysis and its SNAP policy recommendations, can be accessed online at kypolicy.org.
Herald Ledger reporter Daryl K. Tabor contributed to this story.