USDA Stops Measuring ‘Hunger,’ Focuses on ‘Food Security’
Scarlett O’Hara famously declared, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” Now, thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nor will anyone else.
Every year, the Agriculture Department issues a report that measures Americans’ access to food, and it has consistently used the word “hunger” to describe those who can least afford to put food on the table. But not this year. Mark Nord, the lead author of the report, said “hungry” is “not a scientifically accurate term for the specific phenomenon being measured in the food security survey.” Nord, a USDA sociologist, said, “We don’t have a measure of that condition.”
The USDA said that 12 percent of Americans — 35 million people — could not put food on the table at least part of last year. Eleven million of them reported going hungry at times. Beginning this year, the USDA has determined “very low food security” to be a more scientifically palatable description for that group. The United States has set a goal of reducing the proportion of food-insecure households to 6 percent or less by 2010, or half the 1995 level, but it is proving difficult. The number of hungriest Americans has risen over the past five years. Last year, the total share of food-insecure households stood at 11 percent.
Among several recommendations, the panel suggested that the USDA scrap the word hunger, which “should refer to a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation.” To measure hunger, the USDA determined, the government would have to ask individual people whether “lack of eating led to these more severe conditions,” as opposed to asking who can afford to keep food in the house, Nord said.
From a scientific standpoint, “food security” is not only more easily measurable but a more accurate description of what the observed phenomenon measure. It’s also a term that has had long currency among the non-governmental organizations that seek to prevent starvation in the developing world. Still, from a public relations standpoint, it might have been better to make the terminology change in a year when the trend was going in the other direction.
From an anecdotal standpoint, though, I find it difficult to believe that twelve percent of Americans don’t have enough to eat. Most people I encounter seem to have far, far too much and the few who are unusually skinny seem to be quite well off materially, at least judging from their clothes. Even the homeless and beggars I see when I visit DC appear healthy enough.
More importantly, while the idea that a huge number of Americans are going hungry because they can’t afford food is a shocking one, it’s far from clear that the numbers here show that. While twelve percent are in the “very low security” category, less than a third of that group actually had someone go without eating for a single day in 2005. Their lack of security was mostly in worry that they would go hungry, not in the actual fact thereof. That’s sad, too, to be sure. But it’s not the same thing.