Wash. Times: The “Food Insecurity” Hoax

jpb Wash times artwork for hunger piece 9_9_2014_b1-bovard-chicken-p8201_s877x669 Washington Times, September 10, 2014

The Food Security Hoax

by James Bovard

Promoting hunger scam is how federal bean counters keep their jobs

According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, American households suffer far more “food insecurity” than do families in Angola, Mozambique and Pakistan. The USDA uses different standards to gauge domestic and foreign “food security,” but neither measure make senses. Still, that technicality will do nothing to deter politicians and pundits from demagoging the hunger issue.

The Agriculture Department reported Sept. 3 that 14.3 percent of American households — 49 million people — suffered from “food insecurity” last year. This number is little changed from last year despite the fact that the federal government is now feeding more than 100 million Americans.

The USDA defines food insecurity 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” at times during the year. Most of those USDA-labeled “food insecure” did not run out of food; instead, they reported “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet” with “little or no indication of reduced food intake.”

If someone states that they 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 they ever missed a single meal. If someone felt they needed organic kale, but could only afford conventional kale, that is another “food insecure” indicator. If an obese person felt they needed 5,000 calories a day but could only afford 4,800 calories, they could be labeled “food insecure.”

One of the survey’s 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? This was formerly taught as a virtue in high school home-economics classes, and now it is a pretext for a federal alarm.

Even though USDA’s food-security statistics do not measure hunger, that is how the media portrays the report. After the recent announcement, 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 in South Dakota announced: “Hunger a growing problem for South Dakota.” Slate declared: “The Number of Hungry Americans Has Barely Fallen Since the Recession.” The media are following in the footsteps of President Obama, who announced after the 2009 food-security report was released, that “hunger rose significantly last year … . My administration is committed to reversing the trend of rising hunger.”

Some comments on the report focus on data highlighting the plight of minorities. A North Dallas Gazette headline stressed: “Black families facing hunger at nearly twice the rate of other groups.” But a survey by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service found that black children aged 2 to 11 consume significantly more calories than white children.

Many liberals are invoking the USDA report as proof that more food handouts are needed. Joel Berg, a New York “anti-hunger activist” who pockets a six-figure salary thanks largely to AmeriCorps grants, wailed, “A country that combines massive hunger with record Wall Street markets is so derailed, we can’t even find our tracks anymore.” But food insecurity has surged at the same time that far more Americans became government dependents. The number of food-stamp recipients soared from 26 million to 46 million at the same time that food insecurity rose from 11.1 percent to 14.3 percent of the nation’s households.

Households relying on food stamps are far more likely to be “food insecure” than similar families eligible for but not receiving food stamps. Perhaps relying on others for one’s next meal spurs insecurity. Many food-stamp recipients spend the entire month’s allotment on the same day they receive it. Some reports indicate that binge-buying is sometimes followed by binge-eating. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is maintaining an iron curtain of secrecy around the program, refusing to disclose what recipients purchase. Such data could be especially embarrassing now that many fast-food restaurants are accepting food stamps for high-fat, low-nutrient meals.

Though some commentators are touting the USDA survey as proof that low-income people are severely deprived, the Journal of the American Medical Association noted in 2012: “Among poor populations, 7 times as many children are obese as are underweight.” A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2012 found that 35 percent of food-insecure adults were obese — a far higher rate than for food-secure adults. Paradoxically, many activists invoke that high rate of obesity to “prove” that recipients need more free food.

“Food security” is something invented by government statisticians to serve political purposes. The Agriculture Department uses a radically different standard when it estimates “food security” for foreign nations, basing its judgments on whether residents presumptively 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 is “food insecure.” According to USDA, most developing nations have zero problem with “food security” — a conclusion that would shock the downtrodden residents in those countries.

Some Americans are suffering badly, but the USDA has never tried to accurately count the number of people who are actually hungry. The agency is far more enthusiastic on pretending to measure “food insecurity,” because that produces vastly higher numbers to justify expanding federal food programs. An honest survey of actual problems could wreak havoc on bureaucratic job security.

Tagline: James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” (Palgrave, 2006) and “Lost Rights” (St. Martin’s, 1994).

+ Thanks to Greg Groesch for the excellent artwork.

On Twitter: @jimbovard


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8 Responses to Wash. Times: The “Food Insecurity” Hoax

  1. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit September 10, 2014 at 10:29 am #


    Last spring I hopped on the motorcycle to buzz up to Ace for some nuts and bolts for a project. Used an Ace gift card for the purchase. Figured I’d stop at McFood for some high fat/low nutrient lunch on the way back. Reached into my pocket and …

    OMG!!! No wallet!!!! It’s sitting at home in my cargo shorts….

    Fortunately, I usually have a couple of dollar coins in my pocket, and I was able to get some HF/LN burgers off the Dollar Menu (most of the items thereon costing more than a dollar these days). But clearly I “ran short of money and had to make my food money go further,” by buying on the dollar menu rather than the Real People Menu.


    That said, I’m still not clear on how “hunger” and “obesity” go together. I can understand “malnourished” and “obesity” working hand-in-hand, but “malnourished” would imply that the food buyer (or feeder) is not doing his job properly in obtaining nourishing foods. And as you say, that OTC (Oregon Trail Card) works at McFood, and also works at Safeway to buy Doritos and Oreos. Mmmm….Doritos…..

    But I digress.

    I think you caught it perfectly in a couple places there. The purpose of these programs is not really to provide poor people with nourishing food. It’s to provide middle class people with remunerative work that they can “feel good” about, since they’re “helping.” Without having to use a dime of their own….

  2. Tom Blanton September 10, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

    Is there a government program for people that are ripped on some hybrid skunk weed and watching an all-night Twilight Zone marathon who realize at 3 am that they only have a half package of Oreos and a bag of stale Doritos? The Oreos won’t last any time at all and then food insecurity kicks in once the thought of stale Doritos takes hold and the realization that the high is way too intense to handle a brightly lit 7-11 where a bunch of cops hang out.

    There should be an emergency number you can call and have special federal food agents deliver good snacks immediately, before the buzz wears off. Otherwise, all that food insecurity will blow your high and you can’t enjoy the TV marathon.

    Also, does this food insecurity thing include beer insecurity?

    • Jim September 10, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

      Tom, I don’t think it includes beer insecurity. That definitely would have pushed the population at risk above 20%.

  3. Tom Blanton September 10, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    “Paradoxically, many activists invoke that high rate of obesity to “prove” that recipients need more free food.”

    Now this makes sense. Right away when you see a fat guy, you know he goes through a lot of food. Really fat people need all the free food they can get – that’s why they dig those all-you-can-eat buffet deals.

    • Jim September 10, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

      Reading the formal studies on this issue, I am puzzled at how hard some academics work to sweep evidence under the rug.

      • The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit September 11, 2014 at 10:19 am #


        “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
        ― Upton Sinclair