Report isn't accurate gauge of hunger in America, some experts say

A federal survey of households says 'food insecurity' was up in 2008, but that's not the same thing as the plight of malnutrition and a persistent lack of food, some experts say.

November 27, 2009|By Joe Markman

Reporting from Washington — A recent federal report found that more Americans are going hungry -- or did it?

"As American families prepare to gather for Thanksgiving, we received an unsettling report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that found that hunger rose significantly last year," President Obama said last week. He cited a Department of Agriculture survey showing that 17 million American households (nearly 15%) were "food insecure" in 2008, compared with 13 million (about 11%) in 2007.

But experts say being "food insecure" is not the same as being hungry.

"I don't think many people would claim that food insecurity equates to hunger," said James C. Ohls, senior fellow for food and nutrition policy at Mathematica Policy Research Inc., who has led several investigative studies of Americans seeking emergency food relief. "You can get to that by questions like whether you had enough money to buy food. That's probably not 'hungry' by most people's standards."

"Hunger," experts say, better describes the plight of a persistent lack of food and malnutrition every day. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said there is little evidence of that among households in the United States.

"This is not malnourishment in the sense of people dying from hunger," Vilsack told reporters Tuesday, "but it is a circumstance where youngsters are not able to perform up to their potential."

The report avoids the word "hunger." It defines households as "food insecure" if sometime during the year they "had difficulty providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources."

Homeless Americans are not addressed in the report, which was a survey of households.

Questions posed to the 44,000 survey respondents included whether they worried their food would run out before they could get money to buy more and whether they could afford to eat balanced meals.

"The focus was on, did you find yourself in a circumstance that you had to make some very unsavory choices to get your family through," said Mark Edwards, a professor of sociology at Oregon State University and an expert on food insecurity.

Edwards said Obama's statement was "not technically true" because "food insecure" is different from "hunger." There were no survey questions about hunger pains, for instance.

But Beth Daponte, a social and political studies professor at Yale University, warned some American households could be going hungry.

"Am I going to say that people aren't going hungry from [reading] this report? No, I am not going to say that," she said.

Edwards didn't rule it out either.

"It is hard for many people in America to believe it happens because we are a land that produces so much food, and there's plenty of it scattered all over the place," he said. "These problems are actually hidden right under our noses."


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