Hunger isn’t What You’ve Been Told it is: Part 1

Salt and Light Ministries Champaign, IL

hungry          adjective / hun·gry / ˈhəŋ-grē

  1. a: feeling an uneasy or painful sensation from lack of food: feeling hunger (merriam-webster.com)

You have probably seen countless commercials, billboards, and advertisements lamenting the number of people suffering from hunger in the U.S., and if you’re like me you have felt some degree of shock, outrage and responsibility to do something about it.

The problem is, the messaging simply isn’t true.

Before you read any more I want you to picture all of the images that come to mind as a result of the advertisements and “public service” announcements you see and hear regarding hunger in the U.S. At the end of this article I want you to compare these marketing-induced images with the realities of the majority of those standing in our food pantry lines. When you have done this, you can decide for yourself whether we are being misled.

Let me be clear. There are a small number of situations for which food pantries are an appropriate, possibly even life-saving intervention. The problem is the majority of individuals standing in line are not facing crisis situations requiring emergency relief. They are instead in a state of chronic need requiring a more developmental solution. If you intervene in a chronic situation with an emergency intervention (giving stuff) you develop dependency and create entitlement. Period.

The purpose of this article is to shed light on the truths of one of the manifestations of poverty—not having enough to eat. In the U.S. there is no poverty-related issue that draws more attention, or more dollars, than hunger. Whether it’s the almost $100 Billion in tax-payer funded dollars spent last year on programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program), Child Nutrition Programs, and WIC or the billions more going to privately funded programs like food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens—there has been an immense amount of resources devoted to this issue.

What I take umbrage with is not necessarily the number of dollars being spent, but how they are being spent. The business of “hunger” has led to marketing that distorts the truth, and this distortion prevents us from clearly identifying what the problem actually is. If we cannot clearly identify the problem we have no hope of ever solving it.

The truth is, hunger isn’t what you’ve been told it is.

On the USDA’s own website they pose the question, “Does USDA Measure Hunger?”
Their answer to this is, “USDA does not have a measure of hunger or the number of hungry people.”

Why is this important?

The USDA is the primary source for all food insecurity related research, and as such, it is their research that is used to make the majority of the claims you will hear in advertisements from non-profits like Feeding America.

So, what does the USDA measure?

The USDA measures degrees of food security or insecurity. According to the USDA, “The food security status of each household lies somewhere along a continuum extending from high food security to very low food security.” This continuum is divided into four ranges, characterized as follows:

  1. High food security—Households had no problems, or anxiety about, consistently accessing adequate food.

  2. Marginal food security—Households had problems at times, or anxiety about, accessing adequate food, but the quality, variety, and quantity of their food intake were not substantially reduced.

  3. Low food security—Households reduced the quality, variety, and desirability of their diets, but the quantity of food intake and normal eating patterns were not substantially disrupted.

  4. Very low food security—At times during the year, eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake reduced because the household lacked money and other resources for food.

For most reporting purposes, the USDA describes households with high or marginal food security as food secure and those with low or very low food security as food insecure.

Placement on this continuum is determined by the household’s responses to a series of questions (10-18 questions depending on whether or not there are children in the home) about behaviors and experiences associated with difficulty in meeting food needs. The questions cover a wide range of severity of food insecurity.

Households that report three or more conditions that indicate food insecurity are classified as “food insecure”.

This is where misleading marketing comes in. Food Insecurity doesn’t market well. Lamenting the food insecure children on a billboard or commercial isn’t exactly going to open up the checkbooks, so what organizations benefitting from the hunger mythology have done is taken the research identifying the food insecure number of men, women, and children and simply call it hunger.

This is especially egregious considering the USDA explicitly states they don’t and can’t even measure hunger or the number of hungry people.

I don’t know about you, but when I heard about hungry people, images of households who “reduced the quality, variety, and desirability of their diets, but the quantity of food intake and normal eating patterns were not substantially disrupted” is not exactly what came to mind.

In part two I’ll discuss how this clearer understanding of hunger should inform our efforts to alleviate it.

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