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.
Posted by: tropicalfolk | November 19, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Gatsby10 | November 19, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: blasmaic | November 19, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ideallydc | November 19, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: lnbee | November 19, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ideallydc | November 19, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: kiler616 | November 19, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ProCounsel | November 19, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: alance | November 19, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: smorrow | November 19, 2009 9:05 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Ombudsman1 | November 19, 2009 11:05 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: exgovgirl | November 20, 2009 1:12 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: hellslittlestangel1 | November 20, 2009 6:05 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: schala1 | November 20, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: spamsux1 | November 20, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: jckdoors | November 20, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Sascha21 | November 20, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: cornrefiner | November 20, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ideallydc | November 20, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: exgovgirl | November 20, 2009 11:16 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: mmacdon | November 21, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ere591 | November 22, 2009 6:29 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | November 23, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: kathymac1 | November 23, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ChefKyleRD | November 24, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: jaytingle | November 25, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Scientician | November 25, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: cancab | November 25, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: lexalexander1 | November 25, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: bccoyne | November 25, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ifthethunderdontgetya | November 25, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: okjuggler | November 26, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.