January 20 2011

The Hunger Code

It is getting hard to keep track. One minute the government tells us American children are suffering from record levels of obesity. The next, children are facing a hunger epidemic. Which horror story should you believe? Neither.

The truth is, 94.3 percent of American households are able to put enough food on the table every day to feed their families, and the vast majority of children living in these households are healthy and well-fed. Given the food shortages facing people in other countries, Americans are the envy of the world. According to the United Nations, 98 percent of undernourished people live in developing nations. Two-thirds live in only seven countries - Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. 

Why then the alarmist rhetoric carping on the state of nutrition for children in this country? Why the ubiquitous television advertisements imploring people to donate to these anti-hunger organizations?

The No Kid Hungry Campaign, for which Food Network personality (and girlfriend to just-elected New York governor Andrew Cuomo) Sandra Lee is a spokeswoman, has a noble goal - to fight hunger in the United States. Ms. Lee can be seen on a number of the campaign's television commercials repeating the grim statistics that 17.4 million American households are "food insecure," and 4.2 million of those families include children.

The imagery used in the advertisements is depressing. In one, a rail-thin child in faded overalls stares miserably into the camera, holding a placard with the words "I'm hungry" scrawled across it. Another relatively healthy-looking young boy's poster reads, "I haven't eaten today." Yet another child's sign says, "I got my dinner from a gas station." The message of these commercials is clear. Kids are either starving or eating nothing but junk food. Another of the campaign's spokesmen, Academy Award-winning actor Jeff Bridges, put it bluntly, saying Americans should be ashamed that one in four children live in households that are food insecure.

One in four? That's terrible! Something needs to be done. But wait a minute: What does "food insecure" actually mean?

Food insecurity is a term created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its annual report on the status of hunger in America. Those watching these ads and hearing the alarming statistics likely assume the term is synonymous with starvation, chronic hunger, and substandard nutrition - and those pushing the anti-hunger agenda seem perfectly happy with this assumption.

But in fact, the USDA defines "food insecurity" as one of two situations: low food security, which is "reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet with little or no indication of reduced food intake"; and very low food security, or "multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake." No indication of reduced food intake? Disrupted eating patterns? This is hunger in America.

The most recent USDA report, "Household Food Security in the United States 2009," states that 17.4 million households (or 50.2 million people) fit into one of these two categories at some point during 2009. Of these 17.4 million households, the majority - 10.6 million households - experienced "low" food security at some point during the year. That means these families were still able to "obtain enough food to avoid substantially disrupting their eating patterns or reducing food intake" but had less variety in their diets, participated in federal food assistance programs, and at times obtained food from food pantries. The remaining 6.8 million households (which include 5.4 million children) experienced "very low" food security, meaning normal eating patterns were disrupted and food intake was reduced at times.

In other words, one in four American families isn't really suffering from hunger, as the public understands the term. Rather, the problem of hunger actually persists among a relatively small portion of the population. Not surprisingly, the report says that food insecurity is more common among minority, poor, urban, and single-parent households. But even in these households, the report says, "most parents attempt to shield their children from the more severe effects of food insecurity, even when it means reducing their own food intake." In fact, the report states, "only about one in six households with very low food security among adults had very low food security among children."

The good news in this report is that the system is working: The small minority experiencing very low food security can rely on a variety of safety nets - federal food programs such as food stamps, school lunch programs, and food banks, as well as church charities and soup kitchens. What the report does not show - despite what you may see on television - is a systemic or chronic hunger problem in this country. Nor does it show a major problem with childhood hunger.

Advocacy groups are free to promote their causes, but they should be honest with the American public, which generously supports a variety of charities each year. There are many worthy causes, and combating hunger is one of them. But the public deserves the facts - without the use of code words - about a problem that afflicts a small subset of the population, not one in four Americans.

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