Sunday, December 03, 2006

America in a Hunger Epidemic?

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anna Quindlen is an angry woman. She's angry, because "35 million [Americans] don't have enough food, 12 million of them children." She also vilifies the USDA for speaking of "food security" rather than of "hunger," suggesting that the USDA is just trying to downplay the "hunger epidemic" that she says "America is still in the grip of." She also says that "a majority of those polled believe hunger is as bad or worse [in the United States] as in other developed countries."

To access the full text of Anna Quindlen's article titled Real Food for Thought, click here.

I can understand Ms. Quindlen's anger. The more I learn about people who go without, I wonder why that must be in this world of vast material wealth. Some people say that Americans are the most generous people in the world, so stop complaining about what we're not doing, and instead celebrate what we are doing. I don't think we're doing enough. But I recognize emotion can sometimes alienate others, and I sense that Anna is speaking with more zeal than knowledge on this particular topic. I want to analyze her statements so I can put them in perspective for myself and others.

First of all, 35 million "food insecure" Americans (12 million of them children) is down from 38 million "food insecure" Americans (14 million of them children) in 2004. So we're improving. We're not there yet, because 11% of American households still do not always have enough money to eat healthily. But at least we're improving (not on eating healthily, but on the financial means to do so).

Second, food insecurity is not simply a euphemism for hunger. Let me define a few terms, referring to an annual Economic Research Service/USDA report that I wonder how thoroughly Anna Quindlen has ever read:

  • Food Secure: they had access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.
  • Food Insecure: at times, uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food for all
    household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food. About two-thirds of food-insecure households avoided substantial reductions or disruptions in food intake, in many cases by relying on a few basic foods and reducing variety in their diets.
  • Very Low Food Security (previously defined as Hungry): food insecure to the extent that eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and their food intake reduced, at least some time during the year, because they couldn't afford enough food.

The reason the Economic Research Service/USDA changed from the term Hungry to Very Low Food Security is that they determined they were not truly measuring hunger; instead, they were measuring whether people always had the financial means to eat healthily. To keep things in perspective:

  • 11% and 3.9% of households were food insecure or had very low food security at some point during the 12 months prior to being surveyed. "On average, households with very low food security at some time during the year experienced the condition in 7 months of the year and for a few days in each of those months."
  • Over the past 30 days before being surveyed, comparable numbers were 5.9% and 2.2%.
  • The USDA estimates that on any given day, 0.5-0.7% of households in the US have very low food security (i.e., they reduced food intake due to lack of money); that's still 1.5-2.1 million people, but it would be overstating things by a factor of about 20 to say that 35 million Americans are going hungry. Similarly, I believe Ms. Quindlen is speaking in hyperbole when she refers to a "hunger epidemic" in the United States.

Third, a statement that "hunger is as bad or worse [in the United States] as in other developed countries" neither shocks nor appalls me. However, here's a statistic that shocks me: according to the USDA, households considered to be "food insecure" in the US still spend $30 per week per individual on food alone. That's $130 per person per month, and $1560 per year. Consider, on the other hand, that over 1 billion people in the developing world struggle to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves on less than $1 per day. Another 1 billion people earn between $1-2 per day. So over 2 billion people in the world struggle to live on less than $730 per year. And we in America can't consume enough calories on $1560 worth of food?

I agree with Ms. Quindlen that we should not allow ourselves to watch people go hungry when we have the means to help. But I find her assertions to be overly emotional, less-than-thoroughly researched, and grossly lacking any discussion of the global hunger problem.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wanted to make a couple of comments about this article. First a quote: "Of course, applying for food stamps is an arduous process—in Nebraska the application runs 25 pages, and looking at the regulations made my head spin—and the offices at which to do so are open only during work hours, when the working poor have to be at work."

Most third world countries don't have food stamps--the fact that you can even obtain money for food from the government doesn't imply dire need even close to the same scale as in developing nations.

Another quote: "The current minimum wage is a joke if you look at the cost of a loaf of bread."

If you make $5 an hour for 8 hours, that's $40. A generic loaf of bread costs $1 (1/40th of a day's income). In Peru, many laborers earn 10 soles a day on an average day. Bread isn't sold by the loaf there (for most people), but you can get an equivalent for between 0.5 centimos to 1 sol (between 1/20th and 1/10th of a day's work). I might also add that a day's work in Peru for the average uneducated male laborer starts at about 4am and lasts until 4pm if you don't take a 2 hour lunch break--add two hours if you like the siesta.

My belief is that most Americans have no idea what the real third world is like. Many may travel abroad, but the vast majority don't have the know-how to get off the beaten path and see the true state of the average citizen. Anyone can go to Cancun, stay in a 4 star hotel, go to the beach, and shop along the waterfront. But not many can follow the laborers to their adobe houses that don't have electricity and where the 6 kids share the same room. I don't believe most Americans (even "well-traveled") have the insight into the living conditions of other countries and therefore should not make analogies comparing our relative needs, they're not even on the same scale.