Hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians continue to struggle with limited or uncertain access to enough food, according to new figures from the nation's top food-relief charity.
The report by Feeding America, a network of food banks, estimated that 16.7 percent of people in the state were "food insecure" in 2012. That was down from Feeding America's estimate of 17.2 percent in 2011.
However, the 2012 rate topped 20 percent in a number of counties, with Fulton County, in far Western Kentucky, at the top with 23.7 percent.
The lowest rate was 10.3 percent in Oldham County. The estimate for Fayette County was 16.7, the same as the statewide average.
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The nationwide estimate among all people was 15.9 percent, down from 16.4 in 2011.
Feeding America uses reports from food banks and economic and census data to estimate how many people don't have enough food at times. Its 2014 report, released recently, covered 2012, the most recent year for which all the data are available.
People who work at food banks in Kentucky say the need continues to be high.
God's Food Pantry in Somerset is seeing 30 to 40 new families each month seeking to put food on the table, said Brenda Russell, executive director.
"I think the need is growing," she said.
One factor driving up demand is heating bills from winter's extended deep freeze. Higher-than-usual bills ate into the food budget of many families, Russell said.
She said she would assume a cut in federal food-stamp benefits also played a role.
The farm bill Congress approved in February cut $8 billion from the food-stamp program over the next decade.
James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, told the Population Reference Bureau that most households eligible for food stamps still would qualify but would see lower benefits.
The number of people receiving food stamps has grown significantly since 2000 because of higher unemployment, lower incomes and growing income inequality, according to a recent study by Ziliak.
The study found that food-stamp participation since 1980 has grown fastest among workers with some college education, according to an Associated Press report.
Many good-paying jobs in areas such as manufacturing have disappeared, shrinking the American middle class and bumping people with higher levels of education into lower-wage work, the AP reported.
The Feeding America study found that the number of people without a secure food source varied widely in counties across the nation, from a low of 4 percent in Slope County, N.D., with its booming energy production, to a high of 33 percent in Humpheys County, Miss.
One troubling finding, the report said, was that food insecurity among children is higher than among adults — 21.6 percent compared to 15.9 percent among the population as a whole.
The study estimated that 41 percent of children in Zavala County, Texas, don't have reliable access to enough food.
The estimated food-insecurity level among children in Kentucky was 21.6, the same as the national rate.
Poverty and unemployment are key factors in food insecurity, the report said, but the poverty line is not the only factor.
The study estimated 57 percent of those struggling with food needs are above the federal poverty line, but 58 percent of poor households are secure in their food needs.
The cost of housing, utilities, medical care and other needs played a role in whether families were secure in having enough food, the report said.
The report said federal nutrition programs were not reaching all those in need.