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Are Americans really 'food insecure'?

Many families are struggling in today’s economy, and this has hurt their food budgets. This week an Agriculture Department study showed that 16.4 million U.S. households containing 49.1 million people experienced “food insecurity” in 2008, up from 12.2 million households containing 36.2 million people in 2007. Fortunately, Congress has already addressed some of the problem with a significant food-stamp boost in the stimulus package adopted in February.

But is “hunger” widespread in America these days? That is the misleading impression created by press coverage of the USDA study. Headlines in the New York Times print edition (“49 Million Americans report a lack of food”), USA Today (“1 in 6 went hungry in America in 2008”), and The Washington Post (“America’s economic pain brings hunger pangs”) made it sound as if famine stalks the land. The stories were salted with terms such as "alarming" and "dramatic."

When you crack into the data, however, they don’t support this dire portrayal. The USDA report is based on a survey of 44,000 households. They were asked if, and how, a lack of funds affected their eating habits. The first question was whether the respondent had ever “worried” about running out of food in the previous 12 months -- not actually run out of food, just worried about it. A “yes” answer counts as “food insecurity.” Adults are asked if they ever lost weight due to a lack of food money -- but not how much weight, or what they weighed before. In theory, a 300-pound man who lost a pound could count as "food insecure." Similarly, the questionnaire asks whether parents “cut” their kids’ portions at any point in the last year -- without specifying what the portions were before and after. [Clarification, 2:30 p.m.: Three or more "yes" answers here and your household is "food insecure."]

The least severe forms of “insecurity” were the most commonly reported. “Worry,” with 19.7 percent of households, topped the list, followed by running out of food before money came in to buy more (15.3 percent). But in neither instance did respondents actually eat less than usual. Some 11.3 percent of households said they could not afford “balanced” meals for the kids -- but it was up to the respondent to define “balanced.” In any case, only a fifth of these households reported the problem “often.”

Only about a third of the 16.4 million “food insecure” households containing 49 million containing people -- not a third of the 49 million individuals, as the headlines wrongly implied -- reported that any member experienced even a brief reduction in actual food consumption during the year.

Only 1.6 percent of adults went without food for a whole day in 2008. The figure for children was 0.1 percent -- which was actually down from 0.2 percent in 2007.

Is it “alarming” that 99.9 percent of American children ate at least something every day despite the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression? Or is it a tribute to the abundance of the United States, and to the safety net, public and private?

“Persistent undernutrition in terms of adequate calorie and protein intake is extremely rare in the United States,” Mark Nord, the USDA researcher who wrote the report, told me.

The coverage made much of the fact that this year’s “food insecurity” number was the highest ever reported. But we really have no idea if “food insecurity” is at an all-time high or not, because the surveys only began in 1995; this is the first time USDA has done one during a major recession.

We do know, though, that 2008 was the best year in eight decades for food affordability. It took 5.6 percent of income to feed an average family of four, according to USDA -- the lowest share since 1929. To be sure, poor families must spend a greater percentage. But, overall, Americans devote less of their budgets to food than people anywhere else in the world, according to USDA.

USDA released this report as Secretary Tom Vilsack is seeking more money for the nutrition programs that make up 70 percent of his agency’s budget. So it’s no surprise that he contributed to the hype, just a bit, by calling on “America to get very serious about food security and hunger.” But the notion that millions of Americans are starving defies common sense. Look at the people on the street today: Based on that, would you say that America has a hunger problem or an obesity problem?

In fact, on the very day that the USDA issued its report, Kenneth Thorpe, chairman of the department of health policy and management at Emory University in Atlanta, released a survey showing that, if present trends continue, 43 percent of Americans will be obese by 2018.

This recession and its attendant hardships are very real, and we must address them. But there’s no need to exaggerate.

By Charles Lane  | November 19, 2009; 1:26 PM ET
Categories:  Lane  | Tags:  Charles Lane  
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Next: Can't we celebrate a little on health care?


Excellent article!!!

I only wish WP editors could read it and use if for a well-deserved headline, instead of the misleading articles of the past days.

Posted by: tropicalfolk | November 19, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Verbatim, from the study:

"The remaining households (14.6 percent) were food insecure
at least some time during the year, including 5.7 percent with very low food security—
meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their
eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money
and other resources for food."

As usual, Lane is lying through his ignobly dishonest teeth, assuming that no one will bother to look at the study.

What do you think "food intake of one or more household members was reduced and theireating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked moneyand other resources for food", Lane?

You are a liar, a fool, and a downright revolting creature, Lane.

Posted by: Gatsby10 | November 19, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

A 300 pound man who loses one pound due to lack of food has lost a lot of other things first. Same thing with anyone who has worried about running out of food. They too have worried about a lot of other things already. And of course, the real problem is never on the streets where we live. Washington is recession-proof.

Posted by: blasmaic | November 19, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

To me this report highlights the fact that while most American's are well off, many are still struggling. That's a shame.

Posted by: ideallydc | November 19, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad somebody is questioning this the results reported on the recent survey. Americans are getting disgusted with the barrage of dramatic headlines, only to find quite a different picture once you read the actual article. And you have to read it all the way through to get a some semblance of the truth. And then the reporters give no details, so there's no way for the reader to judge for him/herself the veracity of the assertions.
And what's with the new euphemism "Food Insecurity" instead of hunger. What a crock!!

Posted by: lnbee | November 19, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

To me the report highlights that although most people in America are doing well, many are struggling. That's a shame.

Posted by: ideallydc | November 19, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

here is one to piss people off....they talk about a nursing shortage but many nursing schools have a waiting period to get into classes,there are american nurses looking for jobs and aren't taken for "lack of experiece" if they were truly short they would get hired experienced or not....some hospitals are quick to fire and layoff nurses...and yet we bring in foreign nurses to fill slots that could be filled by americans..particularly filipino nurses...and the reason why??...they put them in low paying contracts so they don't have to pay competetive wages.....and statistical arguments...i've been in the field 30+ years...I know what goes on and why.

Posted by: kiler616 | November 19, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

obama--the hunger president

even obama's agriculture secretary noted the cause and effect relationship between unemployment and hunger

and in depression obama we have 6 americans looking for a job for every job opening

christmas is coming and you do not have a job

depresssion obama--its why you do not have a job

Posted by: ProCounsel | November 19, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

Only in America. We are the fattest people on earth and millions are starving. Poverty tends to help fast food joints like McDonald's and so do the two and half liter bottles of discount cola for under a dollar - laden with High Fructose Corn Syrup poison.

Agricultural subsidies (bribes?) heavily support the manufacturer of this cheap corn killer.

Posted by: alance | November 19, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse

I think the problem is not so much that people are going hungrey as that they cant afford to eat healthy as they need to because by the time they buy the non -food items they may not have enough money to buy alot of healthy foods.I know we cant afford lots of fruits and veggies as they are very expensive but i try to buy as much as our budget can stand and im sure theres many people also living within a budget doing the same.Its more of a struggle to eat healthy these days.

Posted by: smorrow | November 19, 2009 9:05 PM | Report abuse

"Food Insecure" is when you weight 300 pounds and you can only afford one "Quarter Pounder".

What a joke.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | November 19, 2009 11:05 PM | Report abuse

I used to work for the Agriculture agency that administers this survey. We all knew it was a croc, a political sap to the advocacy groups such as Food Research Action Center who need to make every American a starving victim in order to justify their own (very comfortably paid) positions. It is the flip side of the obesity claim - if you put the percentages of people who are supposedly overweight together with the ones who have 'food insecurity', there's practical no-one normal left in the country.

Posted by: exgovgirl | November 20, 2009 1:12 AM | Report abuse

So you're refuting the report by ... sitting in a chair and coming up with hypotheticals? Your face looks kind of chubby -- maybe you could do everyone some good by getting off your privileged behind and doing some research in the field (also known as the real world). This sort of activity was once known as journalism.

Posted by: hellslittlestangel1 | November 20, 2009 6:05 AM | Report abuse

Why do you think obesity is a problem in the same places poverty is a problem? Poor nutrition-poor nutrition-poor nutrition! Eating half a Big Mac instead of a whole Big Mac is not the solution if that's all you're eating--you still won't get the vitamins you need. Give people access to fruits and vegetables and dairy. The obesity problem will never be fixed until we repair people's economic capabilities so they can have good food again.

Posted by: schala1 | November 20, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

One of the articles hyping this story also said a factor for "food insecurity" was if people bought less expensive food.

The wording and parameters of this "study" make its conclusions worthless.

Posted by: spamsux1 | November 20, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

So, how many do you think it takes to make it worth your while? Why is anyone going hungry in this country? You can think about it when you go out to luch today.

Posted by: jckdoors | November 20, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Obesity and food insecurity are the opposite sides of the same coin - not different coins. The work of Adam Drewnowski, an economist in the state of Washington, has done work that shows that it costs a lot more to eat healthy food than it does to eat junk food and that the disparity is increasing. Over a two year period it cost 18% more to eat low calorie, high nutrient foods. During the same time, junk food actually decreased by 2%. While relatively few people are going hungry as this article implies, many people cannot afford fruits and vegetables and instead rely heavily on foods derived from highly subsidized corn and soy and the thousands of products made from them. What we need is affordable healthy food, not just affordable junk food. The weight prejudice that you spout, which goes under the radar because so many of us have been indoctrinated with it, is so common that looking into the many reasons for this obesity epidemic will hardly ever come into question. If you think you know the answers already, why would you any look further? It is very likely that the food insecure are the obese and the epidemic of obesity is fueled by expensive healthy food which directs the poor (who have perfectly valid reasons for wanting to eat within their means)to choose what is most affordable.

Posted by: Sascha21 | November 20, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

In 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally listed high fructose corn syrup as safe for use in food and reaffirmed that decision in 1996.

The American Medical Association stated that, “Because the composition of high fructose corn syrup and sucrose are so similar, particularly on absorption by the body, it appears unlikely that high fructose corn syrup contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose.”

According to the American Dietetic Association, “high fructose corn syrup…is nutritionally equivalent to sucrose. Once absorbed into the blood stream, the two sweeteners are indistinguishable.”

High fructose corn syrup is simply a kind of corn sugar. It has the same number of calories as sugar and is handled the same by the body.

Manufacturers of corn sweeteners do not receive government subsidies. Our industry buys corn on the open market at the prevailing market price.

As many dietitians agree, all sugars should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced lifestyle.

Consumers can see the latest research and learn more about high fructose corn syrup at

Audrae Erickson
Corn Refiners Association

Posted by: cornrefiner | November 20, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

" I used to work for the Agriculture agency that administers this survey"

No, you didn't exgovgirl. The Census Bureau administers the CPS survey. Snap!

Posted by: ideallydc | November 20, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

From the summary paragraph of the report:

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) monitors the extent
and severity of food insecurity in U.S. households through an annual, nationally
representative survey and has published statistical reports on household
food security in the United States for each year since 1995."

The report is not based on the CPS. Snap back, ideallydc.

Posted by: exgovgirl | November 20, 2009 11:16 PM | Report abuse

Anyone who has visited a food pantry or soup kitchen knows this column for the disingenuous sophistry that it is. There are plenty of Americans who go hungry each month, just as there are many whose reliance on cheap, fattening foods makes them obese.

Conservatives wish to persuade us that no one in America is so poor as to be malnourished just as they claim that all Americans now have access to health care (they can just go to an ER). Clever number-splitting will not make real world problems go away, but it can persuade people that they do not exist. That is not mere politics; it is immoral and shows a deep indifference to the real, actual suffering of real, actual Americans.

Posted by: mmacdon | November 21, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Lane' nitpicking is not only ridiculous but downright devious. I guess he is aspiring to be one of the FoX talking heads. He can walk in any major US city and you can find hundreds with signs: I will work for food. Another indirect measure of economic distress and food insecurity in the US is when you see too many hitchickers in interstates and thoroughfares around the country. Mr. lying, I think you need to do the leg work called real research before you start fuming well fumes.

Posted by: ere591 | November 22, 2009 6:29 PM | Report abuse

I don't know what the situation is U.S.-wide. All I know is that I just found out my wife and I could go to our local county's senior center, and get a hot lunch for free 6 days a week. We are well off, but this program only asks that you be a certain age.

Seems if there is money for that program, there ought to be money to feed those truly in need. I know most kids now, in most urban areas, can receive at least two and in many cases three meals a day at school courtesy of tax payers.

Also, I believe there are many programs that are under utilized because people either don't know about them, or are too lazy to avail themselves of them. Once, one of our daughters lost her job. Her solution was to turn to her parents for support. We asked if she could collect unemployment. She enrolled, and lasted about one check's worth before being kicked off the rolls for not actively seeking work.

The other anecdotal evidence I'll offer is that is very DIFFICULT to drive through a poor urban area and see malnourishment. Normally what I see is obesity.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | November 23, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

laughed when I read that article, if there were thousands, even hundreds of people starving in the US, there would be pictures all over the media, internet etc

god what a joke

Posted by: kathymac1 | November 23, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I just read this article and then the posts below, and am amazed at the insights however the post by ProCounsel is absurd. Everyone loves to blame McDonald's and the the cola industry for obesity, but it is the government who has not funded nutrition education inititiaves, and even 'educated' Americans know nothing about nutrition or evidence based science.

For example, consumers are being misled into thinking that sugar is healthier than high fructose corn syrup, which is simply a kind of sugar. A sugar is a sugar, whether it’s honey, high fructose corn syrup, table sugar, or fruit juices. You shouldn’t eat too much of any sugar.

There is also a common misperception that manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup receive government subsidies – they do not.

The issue with obesity is that people eat too many calories, don't excercise enough, and do not have the basics necessary to make informed decisions about what to eat. Maybe the solution is to spend more money on informing us rather than letting misinformation confuse and mislead the world.

Kyle Shadix, MS, RD
Registered Dieitian
Instructor, Teachers College, Columbia University, NYC

Posted by: ChefKyleRD | November 24, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Mr Glass!
Somebody had to say it: poor people in America have it made. Not only does our hard work buy THEM fancy meals, did you ever notice what nice cars black people drive? ACORN!

Posted by: jaytingle | November 25, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse

DougJ at Balloon Juice called you out before you even wrote this garbage:

From Nov 16:


Even as we speak, Slate/Levitt/TNR are probably writing something along the lines of “you think that having a high percentage of the population without access to food is bad, but once you get past the conventional wisdom of our hippie overlords, you’ll see that blah blah blah.” David Brooks is probably on the Snooze Hour telling E. J. Dionne that the only solution is food vouchers and, anyway, in Red America, the hungry can always visit the Applebee’s Salad Bar for free. Robert Samuelson and Fred Hiatt are cooking up some bogus figures to tell us that there is no way that we, as a society, can do anything about this. And, anyway, Michael Moore is fat, so how can anyone really be hungry?


I'd say it was prescient, but really, the conservative instinct to blame the poor for their condition is so predictable that it really isn't hard to guess how you'll all react to any evidence that lots of people have it rough through no particular fault of their own, and maybe those with the most need to be taxed a little more to make sure others aren't living on raymen noodles their whole, bleak, grinding lives.

So, deny deny deny, and evade the reality that there are hungry people suffering in America. After all "common sense" tells you this is false! Right from the gut! Who needs fancy "reports" and "studies" that "establish facts" and pollute the issue with "accurate information"? You saw a fat guy cash a welfare cheque once.

Posted by: Scientician | November 25, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Lane,

You would think that after your history with Mr. Glass you would be more careful with accurately describing the contents of the very study you link to. I understand that you might have been rushed for time, but please read your sources before making things up about them, and at least try to make it sound plausible.

I'll make this easier for you; according to the study that you cited answering any one of the questions posed wasn’t actually enough to be classed as food insecure, nor would one fall into that category just because they served their kids two less grains of rice as you falsely imply.

I'll repeat that, written in the very study you cite it states that there had to be positive responses to at least three questions to be considered food insecure, rather than the single positive response you claim.

To give an idea of how little you seem to have absorbed from the study you linked to and allegedly read, I'll use an example from a group that was ranked as having very low food security (which according to the study is actually is more likely to have a meal then the group that you mock)

• 98 percent reported having worried that their food would run out before they got money to buy more.
• 96 percent reported that the food they bought just did not last and they did not have money to get more.
• 94 percent reported that they could not afford to eat balanced meals.
• 97 percent reported that an adult had cut the size of meals or skipped meals because there was not enough money for food.
• 88 percent reported that this had occurred in 3 or more months.
• In 93 percent, respondents reported that they had eaten less than they felt they should because there was not enough money for food.
• In 66 percent, respondents reported that they had been hungry but did not eat because they could not afford enough food.

However, you are correct that often those who don't have all that much money to spend on food are more obese. However, if you had spent the five minutes I did to search the internet; you might have made the connection between these findings: and the many questions on the very study you cite about the quality of food that they eat.

Since it does seem like it might be too much to ask to have you read that study I referenced to above, I'll summarize the findings: people who have little money to spend on food are unable to buy nutritious foods. This happens both because such foods cost more and because they often live miles from grocery stores and cannot afford a car. This, in turn, means that they have to purchase most of their food in local convenience stores where oddly none of the available choices fall into the fruits and vegetables category (unless you count tobacco or ketchup as a vegetable)

I expected better.

Posted by: cancab | November 25, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Well, I was going to say that you clearly learned a great deal from Stephen Glass, but I see cancab has beaten me to it.

This isn't just a case of differing over conclusions or interpretations. This is a case of your fundamentally misrepresenting the contents of the report.

There are two possible interpretations of this column, neither flattering to you:

1) You haven't actually read the report; 2) You read it but are so utterly uncomprehending that even Fred Freakin' Hiatt should have known not to hire you; or, 3) You read it and understood it but decided not to let the facts get in the way of your work.

I'll let you decide which most accurately describes your situation.

Posted by: lexalexander1 | November 25, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

"laughed when I read that article, if there were thousands, even hundreds of people starving in the US, there would be pictures all over the media, internet etc
god what a joke"--kathymac1

Wow! What a POS you are, kathymac1. You laugh at the idea of people either worrying about not having enough food or actually not having enough? Why don't you get off the computer and go down to a food bank or soup kitchen--they need the help AND it'll cure your ignorance.

Posted by: bccoyne | November 25, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

What a disgusting neocon cesspool this formerly great newspaper has become.

Posted by: ifthethunderdontgetya | November 25, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Thanksgiving message from WaPo: "Screw you, hungry Americans!"

Posted by: okjuggler | November 26, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

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