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Thursday, September 10, 2015

No, 48 Million Americans Are Not Going Hungry

"Food insecurity" doesn't mean what you'd think

The Agriculture Department announced this morning that 48 million Americans live in “food insecure” households. Soon you’ll hear we’re suffering an epidemic of hunger. While the federal government is already feeding more than 100 million Americans, we’ll be told that it just isn’t enough.

But it isn’t true. “Food insecurity” is a statistic designed to mislead. USDA defines food insecurity as being “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.”

USDA noted: “For most food-insecure households, the inadequacies were in the form of reduced quality and variety rather than insufficient quantity.”

The definition of “food insecure” includes anyone who frets about not being able to purchase food at any point. If someone states that they feared running out of food for a single day (but didn’t run out), that is an indicator of being “food insecure” for the entire year — regardless of whether they ever missed a single meal. If someone wants organic kale but can afford only conventional kale, that is another “food insecure” indicator.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have criticized USDA for how these statistics are contorted from a measure of household “security” into a misleading estimate that millions of individuals go hungry.

After the 2009 USDA food security report was released, President Obama announced that “hunger rose significantly last year. … My administration is committed to reversing the trend of rising hunger.” 

The latest report will likely be heavily exploited by Democratic presidential candidates and others who see a chance to burnish their benevolent image. (Sen. Bernie Sanders has claimed that “hunger is at an all-time high.”)

Private nonprofit organizations exploit USDA statistics to create a crisis atmosphere. Feeding America proclaimed September as Hunger Action Month, encouraging people to “take selfies while balancing orange spoons on their noses and sharing the photos, tagging their friends and challenging them to participate and raise awareness.” The North Carolina governor’s executive mansion was lit up with orange last week to promote Hunger Action Month.

USDA food security reports, by creating the illusion of a national hunger epidemic, have helped propel a vast increase in federal food aid in recent years. But that has been a dietary disaster across the land. 

A Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics study concluded that “food insecure” adults are far more likely to be obese than “food secure” adults — indicating that a shortage of food is not the real health problem. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “seven times as many (low-income) children are obese as are underweight.” President Obama proclaimed September as National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.

Most federal food aid is poorly targeted to boost nutrition. Forty percent of food-stamp recipients are obese. And food-stamp recipients are far more likely to be obese than low-income Americans not on food stamps. A 2014 Stanford University study concluded that prohibiting the use of food stamps for sugary drinks would prevent 141,000 kids from becoming fat and save a quarter million adults from Type 2 diabetes, but the Obama administration fiercely resists any constraints on how food stamps are spent. When food stamps are distributed on weekends, recipients purchase up to 7% more beer during the month (even though beer is not covered by the stamps), according to a recent National Bureau of Economic Research report.

The insecurity = hunger switcheroo is also fueling campaigns to compel schools to give free breakfasts to all kids after school starts each day. An American Journal of Public Health study warned that such programs “may contribute to excess calorie intake;” the survey found that more than half of all kids participating in such programs eat twice in the morning. 

USDA’s nationwide 2012 School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study found that the average elementary school breakfast provided almost all of children’s daily recommended calories from solid fats and added sugars. Donuts continue to be a popular item on school breakfast menus.

Some Americans are going hungry, but USDA has never attempted to create an accurate gauge to measure actual hunger. Instead, citizens are supposed to be satisfied with federal reports that are little more than a subsidy for political grandstanding. Unfortunately, bogus numbers rarely spawn good policies.

This article first appeared at USA Today. Reprinted with permission.

  • James Bovard is the author of ten books, including Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. Find him on Twitter @JimBovard.