Upon the release of the annual household food security report in 2009, President Obama said, “we received an unsettling report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that found that hunger rose significantly last year.” This month the USDA released its latest report, which claims 48 million Americans live in “food insecure” households.
Does that mean nearly one in six Americans is going hungry?
Before we answer the question we should try to “guesstimate” for ourselves what percentage of the population is going without food. In the U.S. approximately one out of four persons is a child under the age of 18. That is the size of the population that the U.S. government is claiming is hungry. Should the population that is hungry be nearly equal to all of the kids in America?
Does it even seem plausible that every fifth person we encounter doesn’t get enough to eat? If not, what could explain the discrepancy?
The answer is a misleading conflation of hunger with “food insecurity.” The USDA defines food insecurity as being “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” They also add, “For most food-insecure households, the inadequacies were in the form of reduced quality and variety rather than insufficient quantity.” As James Bovard explains,
The definition of “food insecure” includes anyone who frets about not being able to purchase food at any point. If someone states that they feared running out of food for a single day (but didn’t run out), that is an indicator of being “food insecure” for the entire year — regardless of whether they ever missed a single meal. If someone wants organic kale but can afford only conventional kale, that is another “food insecure” indicator.
Bovard points out that even the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has criticized the government for conflating hunger with food insecurity. The USDA requested the Committee on National Statistics of the National Academies to convene a panel of experts to undertake a two-year study to review the issue. Their conclusion:
The panel therefore concludes that hunger is a concept distinct from food insecurity, which is an indicator of and possible consequence of food insecurity, that can be useful in characterizing severity of food insecurity. Hunger itself is an important concept that should be measured at the individual level distinct from, but in the context of, food insecurity.
Food insecurity is a legitimate problem, and one that should concern us. But it is not the same as hunger. A large number of persons who are food insecure are obese—a problem rarely found in those who are perpetually hungry.
To truly end the problem of hunger in this country we need to know how many people are being affected. We need an accurate methodology for identifying who is hungry so that we can know how many of our neighbors need assistance. But we’ll never get an accurate measure if the federal government remains content with misleading the American people. Before we can fix the problem the government needs to stop playing politics with empty bellies.