Thursday, February 17, 2005

In defense of measuring "food insecurity with hunger"

The recent National Academies panel on measuring food insecurity and hunger criticized USDA's prevalence estimates for "food insecurity with hunger," saying the use of the word "hunger" in this context deserved further study and development. This suggestion echoed longstanding concerns raised by Richard Bavier of the Office of Management and Budget. In an email to food security experts at USDA, and colleagues in the related research community, Joel Berg of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger took issue with this aspect of the National Academies report. U.S. Food Policy publishes his comments with permission:

For the record, I would like to state that I adamantly disagree with the panel's suggestion that USDA no longer specify the number of households that face food insecurity with hunger. Permit me to detail my reasoning:

1) The panel claims that "perhaps the most controversial aspect of the measurement of food security is the identification of persons as food insecure with hunger." I do not think this is an accurate description of the controversy. Of the people who question the methodology at all, most come from the political right; these critics tend to claim that, while they accept the accuracy of USDA definition of hunger (under which a relatively small number of households are classified), they dispute the very existence of the category of "food insecure without hunger" (under which a much higher number of households are classified).

2) The panel states that "hunger is a politically sensitive word that conjures images of severe deprivation." I don't think that is an accurate statement either. In the Random House Webster's dictionary on my shelf (college edition, 1997), the top definition of hunger is: "a compelling need or desire for food." The definition closer to the USDA definition, "a painful sensation or state of weakness caused by the need for food" is only the second, less commonly used, definition. Moreover, I actually think the general public would describe more people as hungry than the USDA definition. For instance, most Americans would likely describe anyone forced to go to a soup kitchen or food pantry as "hungry," even if they didn't meet the government's formal definition of the term. Plus, let's consider how the word "hunger" is used in the popular media. Ambitious athletes, businesspeople, and politicians who very much want to win in their fields are called "hungry." Fast food ads question whether we are "hungry yet?"after they flash us a few seconds of a sizzling burger. Last year, the NY Times published an article that described dealers at a $62 million art sale as a "hungry horde" and called a new fashion look "lean but hungry." The paper also ran an ad for a summer educational program with the headline: "Hungry? - We stimulate academic appetites." If the word "hunger" is used in all these broad circumstances, it can certainly be used to describe the situation when Americans actually don't have enough food.

3) The panel claims that hunger is an individual, not a household, experience. Yet is it hard to imagine any meaningful way to consider the problem of individual hunger without considering household income and household food resources. It does seem the panel is delving into an absurd theoretical realm -- with a double-standard that only applies to our poorest residents. For instance, when the government routinely considers the income or the housing conditions of a household, we assume that the income and the housing conditions are experienced evenly by the household; we wouldn't even think of considering whether some people in the household might not equally benefit from that income or whether some people might live in a shabbier or
wealthier room of a house.

4) The panel claims that the "definition of hunger as both a physiological and socioeconomic concept is not made clear" by USDA. Yet I think all of USDA's reports since these measures were first made public in 1997 have consistently been clear about both aspects of the problem.

5) I must object to the panel's suggestion that USDA devote resources to "explore the use of alternative or additional surveys." While more research can often be
useful, if the federal government has significant additional resources to deal with hunger, food insecurity, and poverty, I would much rather that our tax dollars be used to help solve those problems than to further research the extent of those problems. Lastly, I must again return to their claim that "hunger" is generally a "politically sensitive" word. I think that comment reveals more about the panelists themselves -- and the nature of the request that they investigate this issue -- than it does about the word. It seems to me that the word "hunger" is generally only politically sensitive to those who want to deny or minimize its existence.

If there is any more formal way that I can register a response to the panel's suggestions, please let me know.

Thanks again for all your vital work.
- Joel Berg
Executive Director
New York City Coalition Against Hunger
16 Beaver Street, 3rd Floor
New York, New
York 10004

No comments: