Thursday, November 19, 2009

49 million hungry Americans? Not exactly - Nov. 19, 2009 column


As Americans planned their Thanksgiving feasts, some news organizations reported that 49 million Americans went hungry last year. The news was shocking, disturbing -- and exaggerated.

The news stories misstated the findings of a federal report on the nation’s food problems, but the facts are bad enough. It’s hard for millions of Americans to put food on their tables, and the situation is getting worse even though some say the recession is easing.

Here’s what the late radio personality Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story,” based on a closer reading of the report on Household Food Security in 2008 and other documents released Monday by the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service.

First, you need to know that hunger doesn’t exist in Uncle Sam’s America. I’ll explain shortly.

But 17.3 million people – not 49.1 million -- lived in households with “very low food security,” an increase of 4 percent from 2007, according to the report. Very low food security means at least one person in the household ate less or did not eat all day at times during the year because of limited or uncertain access to food.

For the richest country on Earth to have almost 6 percent of all households -- 12.1 million adults and 5.2 million children – in such precarious straits, is, as President Barack Obama said of the report, unsettling.

So where did the figure of 49.1 million people – and as at least one online site erroneously reported 49 million households – come from?

The survey found that 85 percent of American households were “food secure” in 2008, which the government defines as having “access at all times to enough food for an active health life for all household members.”

The remaining 15 percent of households – 49.1 million people -- were “food insecure,” a broad term that encompasses a range of experience from being worried about getting enough food all the way to skipping meals and losing weight. The ranks of food insecure households increased 11 percent from 2007.

“Hunger rose significantly last year,” President Obama said in a statement. Not exactly.

The federal government stopped using the word hunger in 2006 after a two-year study of the methodology and language of food surveys by a panel of the National Academies of Science. The panel concluded that hunger is an individual, physiological condition that may result from household food insecurity. Food insecurity occurs when someone in a household has limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

The government divided food insecurity households into “low food secure” and “very low food secure.” Those with low food security are able to get enough food through federal food programs and community food pantries to avoid disrupting family eating patterns or missing meals. About 9 percent of households experienced low food security, an increase of 7 percent in one year.

Those with very low food security fall through holes in the safety net. Lacking the money or other resources for food, they’re forced to change their consumption. Normal eating patterns are disrupted and some people experience hunger.

The government says that children are usually protected from hunger even in households with very low food security, because moms will do just about anything to keep their kids from going hungry. Even so, in about 500,000 families in 2008, one child or more had to eat less, skip meals or go whole days without food.

This is unacceptable. Congress is working on reauthorizing federal Child Nutrition Programs, with an expansion of summer feeding programs. Obama proposed $10 billion in additional funding over 10 years.

My guess about the news coverage is that reporters and editors were strapped for time and grabbed the top-line number. They failed to decode the terms the government uses. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam has made it nearly impossible for ordinary people to understand the scope of the problem.

We know that hunger by any name would be worse without the heroic efforts of local food banks and other emergency food programs. They’re stretched thin. We need to support them and not just during the holidays.

Happy Thanksgiving.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for clarifying the 49 million hungry Americans story. The truth is bad enough. We all need to support the local foodbanks, as you say. But, exaggerating bad times stories frightens people and makes bad times worse. Yours is an excellent treatment of an important and timely topic. Bravo.