Hunger by any other name

November 22, 2006

It's unlikely that the top brass from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has ever visited Trinity A.M.E. Church in East Baltimore on a Thursday. That's the day bags of groceries are handed out. Nancy Woodhouse, a 74-year-old retiree who has volunteered at Trinity's food pantry for 15 years, reports that it's never been busier. Men, women, children, seniors - they all come around looking for help. On an average day, the volunteers distribute 50 bags. And that's just one pantry among hundreds statewide.

Who requires such assistance? Most of us think of them simply as the hungry. According to the USDA, they represent households with "low food security." The term "hungry" is no longer an acceptable way to describe poor people who are going without food.

One can understand how scientists would find hunger an imprecise word. Each year, government officials survey the public to discern national patterns of food and income. Someone who is food insecure doesn't have enough money to pay for proper nutrition. That can mean anything from frequently having to worry about where your next meal is coming from to simply not having money to buy food of any kind.

But in dropping words like "hungry" and "hunger" from their reports, government officials have embraced sanitized subjectivity over the greater truth. No one in line at Trinity has ever blamed the gnawing pain in his or her stomach on something as harmless sounding as "food insecurity."

Hunger is hunger. It can't be mistaken for anything else, and to abandon that word is to deny its pain and desperation.

In 2005, according to the USDA's most recent survey, a greater percentage of the public was "food secure" than the year before. That's good news, but it still leaves 11 percent or an estimated 12.6 million households (or perhaps as many as 35 million Americans, according to hunger advocates) who are not. That's a shameful statistic in a country as prosperous as the United States.

It's not difficult to find Americans willing to contribute food or money or to volunteer their time to assist the hungry during Thanksgiving week. Bill Ewing, longtime executive director of the Maryland Food Bank, says donations are up again this year. But the work gets harder a few months from now when the afterglow of the holidays is past.

What does hungry really mean? They don't debate that at places like Trinity. Organizers see homeless people, drug addicts, and the chronically unemployed. Sometimes, it's a family burned out of an apartment by fire. Or perhaps a big heating bill has turned food into a secondary concern for someone who is freezing. "You can't look down on anyone," Ms. Woodhouse wisely counsels. "You remember, `It could be me.'"

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