According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, American households suffer far more " insecurity" than do families in Angola, Mozambique and Pakistan. The USDA uses different standards to gauge domestic and foreign "food security," but neither measure make senses. Still, that technicality will do nothing to deter politicians and pundits from demagoging the hunger issue.
The Agriculture Department reported Sept. 3 that 14.3 percent of American households — 49 million people — suffered from "food insecurity" last year. This number is little changed from last year despite the fact that the federal is now feeding more than 100 million Americans.
The 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 or other resources for food" at times during the year. Most of those USDA-labeled "food insecure" did not run out of food; instead, they reported "reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet" with "little or no indication of reduced food intake."
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 felt they needed organic kale, but could only conventional kale, that is another "food insecure" indicator. If an obese person felt they needed 5,000 calories a day but could only afford 4,800 calories, they could be labeled "food insecure."
One of the survey's preliminary screening question asks: "In the last 12 months, did you ever run short of money and try to make your food or your food money go further?" Why should we be concerned that shoppers want their food dollars to go further? This was formerly taught as a virtue in high school home-economics classes, and now it is a pretext for a federal alarm.
Even though USDA's food-security statistics do not measure hunger, that is how the media portrays the report. After the recent announcement, a Voice of America headline proclaimed: "USDA: Hunger Threatens 1 in 7 Americans." A Philadelphia Inquirer headline lamented: "USDA: Despite slight improvement, hunger persists." The Sioux Falls Argus Leader in South Dakota announced: "Hunger a growing problem for South Dakota." Slate declared: "The Number of Hungry Americans Has Barely Fallen Since the Recession." The media are following in the footsteps of President Obama, who announced after the 2009 food-security report was released, that "hunger rose significantly last year … . My administration is committed to reversing the trend of rising hunger."
Some comments on the report focus on data highlighting the plight of minorities. A North Dallas Gazette headline stressed: "Black families facing hunger at nearly twice the of other groups." But a survey by USDA's Agricultural Research Service found that black children aged 2 to 11 consume significantly more calories than white children.
Many liberals are invoking the USDA report as proof that more food handouts are needed. Joel Berg, a New York "anti-hunger activist" who pockets a six-figure salary thanks largely to AmeriCorps grants, wailed, "A country that combines massive hunger with record Wall Street markets is so derailed, we can't even find our tracks anymore." But food insecurity has surged at the same time that far more Americans became government dependents. The number of food-stamp recipients soared from 26 million to 46 million at the same time that food insecurity rose from 11.1 percent to 14.3 percent of the nation's households.
"Food " is something invented by government statisticians to serve political purposes. The Agriculture Department uses a radically different standard when it estimates "food security" for foreign nations, basing its judgments on whether residents presumptively consume at least 2,100 calories per day. A recent USDA report declared that only 13.9 percent of the population in the world's 76 poorest nations is "food insecure." According to USDA, most developing nations have zero problem with "food security" — a conclusion that would shock the downtrodden residents in those countries.
Some Americans are suffering badly, but the USDA has never tried to accurately count the number of people who are actually hungry. The agency is far more enthusiastic on pretending to measure "food insecurity," because that produces vastly higher numbers to justify expanding federal food . An honest survey of actual problems could wreak havoc on bureaucratic job security.
James Bovard is the author of "Attention Deficit Democracy" (Palgrave, 2006) and "Lost Rights" (St. Martin's, 1994).