A hunger for solutions

November 29, 2006|By Stephen A. Haering

Each year since 1995, the United States Department of Agriculture has released a report revealing a degree of hunger in the world's richest nation that is our collective shame. But are we allowed to refer to this reality as "hunger"?

Recently, policymakers at the USDA have removed the terms "hunger" and "food insecure" from their classification scheme for describing Americans' ability to obtain sufficient, safe, nutritious and affordable food.

To ensure scientific rigor, the USDA asked the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate its methods for estimating "food insecurity" and hunger in the United States. The academy convened an expert panel that worked for two years on these complex issues. In October, the panel released its report: "Food Insecurity and Hunger in the United States: An Assessment of the Measures" (available at www.nap.edu/catalog/11578.html).

The report asserts that the current data collection methods cannot accurately measure the individual experience of hunger. We agree that the survey used by the USDA focuses on the ability of households to secure food, not the actual existence of hunger. Using the current survey tool to report "hunger" requires extrapolation that can result in potential inaccuracies. The panel did not suggest new terminology.

Before this report, households were categorized as "food secure," "food insecure without hunger" and "food insecure with hunger." After the report, the USDA substituted "low food security" and "very low food security" for the two categories describing people who are suffering. USDA's rationale for choosing these less-charged terms is unclear. However, the potential impact of this new terminology on public perceptions, attitudes and understanding, and on government policies, is profound.

How concerned would we be if we read that "in 2004, 3.9 percent of U.S. households experienced `very low food security'?" Would our reactions be stronger if we were told, "in 2004 3.9 percent of U.S. households were `hungry'?"

If our choice of language allows us to avoid seeing hunger for what it is, society will have less understanding, less motivation and less political will to undertake and tackle the complex problems at stake.

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is involved in exploring the complex web of diet, health, food production and food systems. Our work at the center on projects with community groups to research and improve food security in Baltimore has led us to appreciate the difficulties involved in measuring complex human experiences such as food security and hunger. Both are established as a result of interactions at global, national, state, community, household and individual levels. A multilayered approach targeting these various levels is necessary. We identify several priority issues.

Until more accurate survey instruments are developed, the USDA should reinstate the phrases "food insecure without hunger" and "food insecure with hunger" to describe the state of household affairs with regard to food. To acknowledge the expert panel's counsel about the scientific inaccuracy of these terms, USDA should place an asterisk (accompanied by explanatory footnotes) next to each of the phrases until more accurate measures for hunger are developed and implemented. This will ensure that terms that are meaningful to the general public will continue to be used regarding this critical social issue.

The USDA and other institutions should commit to working together to define "hunger" and to determine the most accurate methods for measuring household food insecurity and individual hunger. This work must be done in collaboration among government agencies, scientific experts and community members in order to ensure that the definition fully captures everyone's understanding and experience.

The USDA, academia, local and state governments, and advocacy groups must work with communities and individuals who suffer from hunger. We call for going beyond the National Academy of Sciences panel's recommendations to craft community-derived solutions that develop and sustain communities in which all households and individuals enjoy food security. Failure to involve those who suffer from food insecurity and hunger will lead to inadequate survey instruments and failed policies and programs.

In taking a broader approach, we must not lose focus on individuals and families. Further, we must recognize that scientific evidence remains impotent unless translated into actions that relieve suffering.

In a holiday season when abundant food is often part of the celebration, too many of our neighbors face food insecurity and too many members of the human family suffer from hunger - regardless of how it is classified or measured. Let us demand that every person who is hungry be counted in a way that everyone can understand, and let us demand that every household that is food insecure be remembered.

Finally, let us resolve that we will not allow obscure language to minimize the plight of our needy neighbors, but will instead work with them to create solutions.

Dr. Stephen A. Haering is a second-year resident in preventive medicine at the Johns Hopkins University. His e-mail is shaering@jhsph.edu. He wrote this article with Dr. Peter Troell and Dr. Shams Syed, his research partners at Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future.

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