Monday, November 17, 2008

Comment on the new USDA Hunger Report

The United States Agriculture Department released it's annual hunger report today. We'll actually it's not a hunger report anymore, because out government doesn't use the term "hungry" to describe people without food anymore.

The report does show that the numbers of people without food has increased in recent years. We are now up to 12 percent of Americans who have trouble putting food on their tables.

As Elisabeth Williamson reports in this Washington Post article, our government doesn't think "hunger" is scientifically sound term.

Less vexing has been the effort to fix the way hunger is described. Three years ago, the USDA asked the Committee on National Statistics of the National Academies "to ensure that the measurement methods USDA uses to assess households' access -- or lack of access -- to adequate food and the language used to describe those conditions are conceptually and operationally sound."

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.

It is not likely that USDA economists will tackle measuring individual hunger. "Hunger is clearly an important issue," Nord said. "But lacking a widespread consensus on what the word 'hunger' should refer to, it's difficult for research to shed meaningful light on it."

Anti-hunger advocates say the new words sugarcoat a national shame. "The proposal to remove the word 'hunger' from our official reports is a huge disservice to the millions of Americans who struggle daily to feed themselves and their families," said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, an anti-hunger advocacy group. "We . . . cannot hide the reality of hunger among our citizens."

In assembling its report, the USDA divides Americans into groups with "food security" and those with "food insecurity," who cannot always afford to keep food on the table. Under the old lexicon, that group -- 11 percent of American households last year -- was categorized into "food insecurity without hunger," meaning people who ate, though sometimes not well, and "food insecurity with hunger," for those who sometimes had no food.

Our favorite think tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities highlighted what they thought were key findings in the USDA's report.

Even before the current economic downturn, some 13 million households, containing 36.2 million people, lacked access to adequate food at some point in 2007 because they didn’t have enough money for groceries, according to today’s release. These figures are a slight increase over the findings for 2006, but given the dramatic weakening of the economy in recent months, the number of “food insecure” households has likely grown considerably in 2008.

Food stamp caseloads — an indicator of those struggling to afford a basic diet — grew by nearly 2 million people between January and August 2008 (the most recent month for which we have data). The economic downturn also has coincided with a sharp increase in food prices, both of which have undoubtedly exacerbated hardship for many low-income families.

The report included three noteworthy findings.

* About 4.7 million of the 13 million food insecure households in 2007 had very low food security, with household members skipping meals or taking other steps to reduce the amount they ate because of a lack of resources. The size of this group and its share of the overall population have risen steadily over the past decade.

* The number of children with very low food security rose by over 60 percent, to 691,000.

* The number of food insecure seniors living alone rose by 26 percent, to 783,000.

Over the 2005-2007 period, food insecurity was greatest in Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, and Maine. In addition, the new data likely understate food insecurity because they don’t include homeless individuals or families.

Congress can take action to help struggling families by increasing food stamp benefits temporarily as part of a new round of economic stimulus. Not only would this help hard-pressed families put nutritious food on the table, it would also boost the overall economy by providing added business for food retailers and their suppliers. Each $1 spent on food stamps generates $1.84 in economic activity, according to USDA.

More broadly, the next President and Congress should consider setting a national goal to reduce poverty and acting upon it, as former Prime Minister Tony Blair did in the United Kingdom. That would significantly shrink the number of households that can’t afford a decent diet. A number of charitable organizations and poverty experts have called for a national effort to cut poverty in half over the coming decade. At the same time, steps could be taken to enhance the federal food assistance programs to address hunger.

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