The USDA released its annual report on Food Security (i.e. whether people can secure enough food to eat, not whether Chef Boyardee is an Al Qaeda mole) this week, and the media have temporarily stopped writing stories about the crisis of Obesity among the poor to write stories about how the real problem is that they’re starving.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith approaches his job of revising The Times to ensure that the government’s predictions always can be shown to have been accurate:
For example, the Ministry of Plenty’s forecast had estimated the output of boots for the quarter at 145 million pairs. The actual output was given as sixty-two millions. Winston, however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to fifty-seven millions, so as to allow for the usual claim that the quota had been overfulfilled. In any case, sixty-two millions was no nearer the truth than fifty-seven millions, or than 145 millions. Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot.
We seem to be living in a kind of strange mirror image of Oceania here, where everyone has a different pair of boots for every day of the week but where the newspapers are full of hand-wringing editorials about the boot shortage.
The New York Times reports on the USDA Food Security Report:
Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High
WASHINGTON — The number of Americans who lived in households that lacked consistent access to adequate food soared last year, to 49 million, the highest since the government began tracking what it calls “food insecurity” 14 years ago, the Department of Agriculture reported Monday.
The important thing here is to note that the Times uses the common and easily understood word ‘hunger’ in the headline; but the lede backs off from this quite a bit, putting the actual thing being measured in quotes, and interjecting a ‘what it calls’. It seems to have occurred to someone at the Times that what is at an all-time high is not hunger, exactly.
A better headline, really, would be: Some People Too Stupid To Use Food Stamps because there’s absolutely no reason for anyone in the United States not to have enough to eat. If your income is $0, the government will feed you. If your income is greater than $0 but less than an amount that’s almost impossible to figure accurately, the government will partially feed you.
The Times again:
About a third of these struggling households had what the researchers called “very low food security,” meaning lack of money forced members to skip meals, cut portions or otherwise forgo food at some point in the year.
The other two-thirds typically had enough to eat, but only by eating cheaper or less varied foods, relying on government aid like food stamps, or visiting food pantries and soup kitchens.
It falls to Tino to do the reporting that, for whatever reason, the New York Times won’t, and explain what these terms mean.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has four categories for ‘food security’:
- High Food Security
- Pretty much what it says. USDA says ‘no reported indications’ of food access problems.
- Marginal Food Security
- Basically: anxiety. USDA: ‘Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.’
- Low Food Security
- Poor. Buying store brands. USDA: ‘Little or no indication of reduced food intake.’
- Very Low Food Security
- USDA says: ‘Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.’
You are sorted into these categories based on your answers to the questions in this survey. The questions are like:
I worried whether my food would run out before I got money to buy more: Often, sometimes, never
I couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals: Often, sometimes, never
In the last 12 months, did you ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money for food?
In the last 12 months, did you ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn’t enough money for food?
I relied on only a few kinds of low-cost food to feed my child because I was running out of money to buy food: Yes, no
Basically, you get a point for each ‘Yes’, ‘Often’, or ‘Sometimes’ answer. So if you’ve worried, and eaten a small meal, and eaten what you think is an unbalanced meal, or relied on ‘only a few kinds of low-cost food’ to feed the kids at least once any time in the past year, you have ‘very low food security’. That might be a valid thing to measure, but it certainly is not ‘hunger’.
Incidentally, it’s notable that the people in the survey report markedly better ‘food security’ in the 30 days immediately prior to the survey than they do when asked the same questions about the past year. This strongly suggests that people are remembering things as worse than they really were. On top of the vagueness of the questions, this renders the survey almost totally pointless.
The official victim class (to which a lot of ‘food-insecure’ people certainly belong) would all be pretty skilled in being sure to always tell the government survey that everything’s terrible; this is, after all, the job of the professional victim.
In the United States, if you can’t afford food, the federal government will subsidize your eating, usually on the spot. When you apply for food stamps, unless something goes wrong you generally leave the office with your EBT card. In 2007, Nicole and I tried the food stamp diet to see whether it was possible to eat well on it, and the conclusion is that you need to know how to cook, but that other than that, it’s pretty damned easy.
What we actually did was the $21 per week diet. At the time, the average food stamp benefit came to $21 per person per week. You’re not actually meant to spend only $1 per meal; as your income rises, your benefit is cut. If you actually have no income at all, you got $155 a month, which is $38.75 a week. Given that it’s entirely possible to eat a healthy and tasty diet on $21 a week, $38.75 would be a piece of cake. Literally: on $21 you can only afford cookies.
The benefit has increased since then, and if you receive SNAP benefits (the actual name for the food-stamp program these days), any kids you might have are eligible for free breakfast and lunch at school.
The Times story goes on, eventually leading here:
Some conservatives have attacked the survey’s methodology, saying it is hard to define what it measures.
Considering that the statistics don’t make sense and that even the New York Times feels a need to distance itself from the weird terminology involved, I’d say that ‘some conservatives’ might have a point.