Monday, February 06, 2006

A tiff with a headline writer about food security and food stamps

Last fall, when USDA published its annual estimates for the prevalence of household food insecurity -- 11.9 % of all U.S. households -- it seemed important to provide a bit more context. After all, who knows what that number means on its own?

So, a post on U.S. Food Policy and a press release from the Friedman School at Tufts offered some additional perspective. The new prevalence estimate represented the fifth straight year of worsening food security, and it tied for the worst prevalence estimate reported since the modern national data collection began in 1995 (see graphic below).

This story was picked up by smaller media outlets. The online site Food Production Daily used the headline, "Nutrition at Risk with Rising Food Insecurity." The article said:

Food insecurity is the term used to describe households where not all members have access to enough food for an active, healthy life at all times. The US government’s main strategy for dealing with it is the food stamp program; in 2005 an estimated average of 25.6 million households received food stamps each month.

Dr Parke Wilde, assistant professor at Tuft University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, told that it is fair to say there is a connection between food insecurity and nutrition problems.

Paradoxically, in food insecure families there is a higher incidence of overweight and obesity. Wilde said this may be due to a ‘boom and bust cycle’ caused by sporadic access to sufficient food. Food stamps are credited on a monthly basis, and the typical pattern is that recipients make a large shopping trip at that time.

The publication comes from a company called NutraIngredients, and its reporter added some quotes from supplement industry f0lks at the bottom of the article. Still, the article did well to make clear to readers that the pro-supplement material was their own addition, not my view.
While Dr Wilde said his colleagues maintain that the emphasis on nutritional advice should be on food rather than supplements, [supplement industry figure Steve] Mister emphasizes that they are called “dietary supplements, not dietary substitutes”.
The article mentioned my very real concern about food insecurity in the last week of the monthly food stamp cycle, but it wisely avoided blaming the Food Stamp Program too broadly and provided a balanced summary of some of the merits and demerits of possible program changes.

So, no complainst about NutraIngredients today (I'll have to explore the site more critically another time).

Unfortunately, like the children's game "telephone" gone awry, another odd industry publication call in turn picked up the NutraIngredients article and ran with the headline, "Nutrition Professor Claims Food Stamp Program Results in Nutrition Problems." That's not right. Most readers will assume the "nutrition professor" -- really, an economist in a nutrition school -- is a conservative program critic. It seemed so clear in the NutraIngredients article that I am concerned about the food stamp cycle, but read with sympathy both the proponents and opponents of some suggested program changes.

Both I and my school's public relations folks contacted the online publication, asking them to correct the headline. My online comment runs at the bottom of the wayward article, and the evidence that the headline overstates is contained right within the article itself. Why would they leave up both the headline and the critical comment? In their shoes, wouldn't you change the headline?

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Parke, good for you for setting that record straight. This is too important an issue for irresponsible journalism. I heard a lecture on these issues on Friday at Syracuse University and just had a "hunger map" drawn of our neighborhood to understand the levels of food insecurity in our own backyard--I can't believe that this isn't front page news.