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.