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The Food-Security Charade

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Federal spending on food aid has skyrocketed in recent decades, and the feds are now feeding more than 100 million Americans. Yet, according to the Agriculture Department (USDA), far more Americans are “food insecure” now than before the mushrooming of subsidized feeding programs. But rather than seeing this as evidence of a government failure, a chorus of activists and pundits insist that it proves that even more people should be encouraged to depend on Uncle Sam for their next meal.

The USDA announced last September that 14.3 percent of American households suffer from “food insecurity.” There are 49 million people living in those households, and the media coverage presumed that all those residents were either hungry or “food insecure.” But the USDA’s report states that many residents — especially children — in such households actually do not go hungry or suffer doubts about food. That statistical contortion is typical of a report seemingly crafted to provide cover for bureaucrats while permitting politicians to fan public fears.

Over the past 15 years federal surveys have profoundly muddled Americans’ understanding of the hunger problem. During the Clinton administration, the USDA began using a “food insecurity” survey that had been initially created by the Food Research Action Center (FRAC), a left-wing advocacy organization renowned for hyping hunger. FRAC’s goal is to vastly increase the number of Americans receiving government food aid — and it slanted the questions accordingly.

One of the USDA’s surveys’ preliminary screening question asks, “In the last 12 months, did you ever run short of money and try to make your food or your food money go further?” Why should we be concerned that shoppers want their food dollars to go further? That was formerly taught as a virtue in high-school home-economics classes. Now it is a pretext for federal alarm.

The USDA defines food insecurity for a family as being “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” The USDA noted, “For most food-insecure households, the inadequacies were in the form of reduced quality and variety rather than insufficient quantity.”

“Worry” about being able to buy sufficient food is the number-one source of food insecurity. If someone states that he feared running out of food for a single day (but didn’t run out), that is an indicator of being “food insecure” for the entire year — regardless of whether he ever missed a single meal. If someone felt he needed organic kale but could only afford conventional kale, that is another “food insecure” indicator. If an obese person felt he needed 5,000 calories a day but could only afford 4,800 calories, he could be labeled “food insecure.”

Democrats have a long history of demagoging this particular report. After the 2009 food-security report was released, Barack Obama announced that “hunger rose significantly last year…. My administration is committed to reversing the trend of rising hunger.” Obama’s comment spurred a Washington Post headline, “Hunger a growing problem in America, USDA reports,” while the New York Times chimed in with a story titled, “Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High.”

The USDA’s most recent report, which focuses on food insecurity and not hunger, spurred the usual deluge of misleading media coverage. A Voice of America headline proclaimed, “USDA: Hunger Threatens 1 in 7 Americans.” A Philadelphia Inquirer headline lamented, “USDA: Despite slight improvement, hunger persists.” The Sioux Falls Argus Leader announced, “Hunger a growing problem for South Dakota.”

In its 2013 report on food insecurity, the USDA asserted that federal food programs “increase food security by providing low-income households access to food, a healthful diet, and nutrition education.” But food insecurity is far more widespread now than in 2007 (11.1 percent versus 14.3 percent now), even though the number of food-stamp recipients has soared from 26 million to 46 million in the meantime.

Actually, rising government dependency may help explain rising insecurity. A 2007 Journal of Nutrition study concluded that families receiving food stamps are more than 50 percent more likely to be food-insecure than similar households not on food stamps. Three years later, the Government Accountability Office stated that food-stamp participants “tend to be more food-insecure compared to” eligible nonparticipants. A Harvard School of Public Health 2013 study also found that enrolling in the food-stamp program failed to significantly boost participants’ food security regarding dietary quality.

Perhaps relying on others for one’s next meal spurs insecurity. Many food-stamp recipients spent the entire month’s allotment on the same day they received it. Some reports indicate that binge buying is sometimes followed by binge eating.

Though the food-security survey results are touted as evidence of widespread hunger, another USDA survey debunked that conclusion. The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service conducts periodic surveys on “What We Eat in America.” The most recent survey (2009-2010) revealed that children 2 years old to 11 in households with less than $25,000 in annual income consume significantly more calories than children in households with incomes above $75,000. The same report showed that black children in the same age group consume significantly more calories than white children. (The Journal of the American Medical Association noted in 2012 that “seven times as many [low-income] children are obese as are underweight.”)

Secrecy

Some of the “food security” problem may result from how food stamps are spent, but the Obama administration maintains an iron curtain of secrecy around the program. Rep. Tom Marino (R-Penn.) introduced the SNAP Transparency Act last year to compel the USDA to disclose the food items for which food stamps are used. Marino complained, “Congress has virtually no information to ensure that the program is operating effectively.” The Association of Health Care Journalists, the National Association of Science Writers, and other organizations endorsed Marino’s legislation, but Democratic lawmakers made sure it went nowhere. But that also makes a mockery of the millions of dollars of federally funded research on low-income diets and nutrition problems. The feds would rather withhold the key information than risk disclosures that might demolish the pretense that food stamps are a “nutrition program.”

“Food security” is something invented by government statisticians to serve political purposes. The USDA uses a radically different standard when it estimates “food security” for foreign nations, basing its judgments on whether residents may be presumed to consume at least 2,100 calories per day. A recent USDA report declared that only 13.9 percent of the population in the world’s 76 poorest nations are “food insecure.” According to the USDA, American households suffer far more “food insecurity” than do families in Angola, Mozambique, and Pakistan. It claims that most developing nations have zero problem with “food security” — a conclusion that would shock the downtrodden residents in those countries.

The USDA’s food-security survey has been harshly criticized by experts in the past. The National Academy of Science (NAS) recommended in 2006 that the USDA radically overhaul the survey. The USDA juggled the terminology, adapting the phrase “low food security” to signify that survey respondents reported “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet” with “little or no indication of reduced food intake.” The NAS panel recommended that the “USDA should explicitly state in its annual reports that the data presented in the report are estimates of prevalence of household food insecurity and not prevalence of hunger among individuals.” The panel also recommended that “resource-constrained hunger (i.e., physiological hunger resulting from food insecurity) … 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.”

The NAS panel lamented that there is little solid data on individual hunger in the United States and urged the government to develop reliable gauges of hunger. That is a sound recommendation, but it is appalling that it would be necessary to make such a proposal more than 40 years after Richard Nixon first declared war on hunger. Decade after decade, politicians have talked as if higher federal food-aid spending would automatically banish hunger from the land. Nixon also set a precedent followed by the vast majority of subsequent politician–hunger warriors by failing to reform federal farm policies that sharply inflated food prices to all consumers while claiming to be concerned about the poor. Federal policies currently make sugar, milk, peanut butter, and many other basic products far more expensive than they would otherwise be. But neither Obama nor the hunger lobby has exerted elbow grease to end policies that brutalize Americans at the grocery checkout.

Some Americans are suffering badly, but the USDA has never tried to accurately count them. The department is far more enthusiastic about pretending to measure “food insecurity” (instead of hunger) because it produces vastly higher numbers to justify expanding federal food programs. An honest survey of actual problems could wreak havoc on bureaucratic job security.

This article was originally published in the December 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Freedom Frauds: Hard Lessons in American Liberty (2017, published by FFF); Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.