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Some Americans Lack Food, but USDA Won't Call Them Hungry

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

The U.S. government has vowed that Americans will never be hungry again. But they may experience "very low food security."

Every year, the Agriculture Department issues a report that measures Americans' access to food, and it has consistently used the word "hunger" to describe those who can least afford to put food on the table. But not this year.

Mark Nord, the lead author of the report, said "hungry" is "not a scientifically accurate term for the specific phenomenon being measured in the food security survey." Nord, a USDA sociologist, said, "We don't have a measure of that condition."

The USDA said that 12 percent of Americans -- 35 million people -- could not put food on the table at least part of last year. Eleven million of them reported going hungry at times. Beginning this year, the USDA has determined "very low food security" to be a more scientifically palatable description for that group.

The United States has set a goal of reducing the proportion of food-insecure households to 6 percent or less by 2010, or half the 1995 level, but it is proving difficult. The number of hungriest Americans has risen over the past five years. Last year, the total share of food-insecure households stood at 11 percent.

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.

That last group now forms the category "very low food security," described as experiencing "multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake." Slightly better-off people who aren't always sure where their next meal is coming from are labeled "low food security."

That 35 million people in this wealthy nation feel insecure about their next meal can be hard to believe, even in the highest circles. In 1999, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, then running for president, said he thought the annual USDA report -- which consistently finds his home state one of the hungriest in the nation -- was fabricated.

"I'm sure there are some people in my state who are hungry," Bush said. "I don't believe 5 percent are hungry."

Bush said he believed that the statistics were aimed at his candidacy. "Yeah, I'm surprised a report floats out of Washington when I'm running a presidential campaign," he said.

The agency usually releases the report in the fall, for reasons that "have nothing to do with politics," Nord said.

This year, when the report failed to appear in October as it usually does, Democrats accused the Bush administration of delaying its release until after the midterm elections. Nord denied the contention, saying, "This is a schedule that was set several months ago."

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