CQ, May 12, 2008: Hunger۪ Not in USDA Lexicon

Posted on

By Aliya Sternstein, CQ Staff

Millions of people in the United States go to bed without dinner every night, but the federal government has no idea how many are hungry. In part, that۪s because the term is considered too vague to be of any use.

The Agriculture Department is clear about this point: “USDA does not have a measure of hunger or the number of hungry people.” In fact, the word “hunger” is essentially outlawed by the government in its yearly surveys that measure household access to food.

Before 2006, the Agriculture Department categorized some households as “food insecure with hunger,” meaning one or more people in the household could not afford enough food to eat at times during the year. “Hunger,” in that sense, referred to “the uneasy or painful sensation caused by lack of food.”

Following recommendations from a committee of the National Academies, the department decided that the condition measured in the food security survey is a household-level social and economic condition, not an individual-level physiological condition. A new description, “very low food security,” now describes the same level of limited access to food but does away with the mention of the physical sensation. And USDA has no measurement for the physiological experience of hunger.

Today, the government places households along a continuum that it regards as more precise, ranging from “high food security” to “very low food security.” Those with high food security have no problems or anxiety about consistently getting the food they need. In 2006, the last year for which results of this survey have been published, this group accounted for more than 81 percent of the nation۪s 116 million households. As a result of the terminology change, said USDA spokesman Keith Williams, “more people are covered by the term food insecurity,۪ and we have been able to increase the funding to $60 billion.” That۪s a 76 percent increase since 2001, Williams said.

Those with marginal food security had problems at times, or some anxiety about, getting adequate food. But the quality, variety and quantity of their food intake wasn۪t substantially reduced. They accounted for almost 8 percent of households.

Households with low food security reduced the quality, variety and desirability of their diets, but quantity and eating patterns weren۪t substantially disrupted. Not quite 7 percent of households roughly 8 million fell into this group.

For the 4 percent, or 4.6 million, of households with very low food security in 2006, eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced because the household lacked money and other resources for food at times during the year.

The figures for low and very low food security add up to more than 35.5 million people, including 12.6 million children, living in households where not everyone always had enough to eat. Households in the most precarious group accounted for 7.7 million adults and more than 3.4 million children.

Independently, America۪s Second Harvest, which operates a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, surveys charity operators and clients every four years to gather demographic information, program participation data and some health data on the people they serve. The organization۪s latest study, derived from information collected in 2005, reported that about 4.5 million different people received emergency food assistance from its network in any given week.

One hurdle in pinpointing the magnitude of the nation۪s hunger problem is the government۪s lag in analyzing and reporting food security data. The Census Bureau conducts surveys each December, but the USDA doesn۪t release its analysis of the information until November of the next year. “The interim is needed for checking the data and preparing the report,” said Mark Nord, a sociologist with USDA۪s Economic Research Service and lead author of the annual report on household food security.

Moreover, the government has been measuring food insecurity only since 1995. Prior to that, the best proxy for food insecurity would be the poverty rate, Nord said. The measurement of poverty in the United States, which dates back to 1960s, was conceived to represent a level of income that could support food security, he said. The USDA۪s measurement of food-insecure households (those with either low or very low food security) is generally about 1.5 percentage points lower than the percentage of people who live below the poverty line.

Anti-hunger advocates say they aren۪t convinced the government is working hard enough to explain and understand the hunger problem. James D. Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, said the government is “sanitizing” the problem by avoiding the word “hunger,” and is delaying the release of food insecurity data by almost a year. “It۪s an attempt to sort of minimize the struggle people face by sort of euphemizing the terms of the debate,” he said.

Tabulating the number of food-deprived citizens “is not the highest priority” for the administration, Weill said, noting that government statistics on all manner of economic indicators are much more up to date and released far more frequently than statistics concerning hunger.

« Back to News