Overweight and Undernourished, Part 2

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We’re looking at the paradox of how a country or a person can be obese and malnourished at the same time. This is an important matter, not least because the seeming contradiction provides an opening for people from some segments of the political spectrum to deny that help is needed in areas where others see huge problems as obvious and apparent.

Roderick Gregory is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and a Hoover Institution (Stanford) research fellow. In the pages of Forbes magazine, he wrote:

Childhood hunger and nutrition are one of the constants of political discourse.

Well, yes and no. Throughout history, these matters seldom caused monarchs or dictators to lose any sleep. They were concerned with the delineation of borders and how to acquire powerful allies, and how to pay their aggressive or defensive troops. Traditionally, hunger was used as a weapon. Invading armies ruined crops and slaughtered livestock, or, at the very least, appropriated everything edible for their own use. Soldiers’ need for food was important. Children’s hunger, not so much.

It would be more accurate to say that childhood hunger and nutrition are one of the constants of personal life. Mothers and fathers have always been in the business of feeding their children, but through huge stretches of history, in many places, these things were not seen as connected with the realm of political discourse at all.

Recently, in our more enlightened times, the adequate feeding of children has been seen as the responsibility of the State. Most modern nations at least pay lip service to the idea that their governments bear some sort of responsibility when it comes to keeping children from starving.

Gregory is skeptical about claims that are made in modern America, saying:

Advocacy groups repeat over and over that 16.2 million children (one in five) ‘struggle with hunger in the United States.’… Statistics that become part of our folklore should raise suspicion. When we dig into them, they are usually wrong… The one-in-five childhood hunger figure should raise red flags…

Gregory gives three reasons for that assertion, one of which is:

… [A]dvocacy groups (with Michelle Obama as a leading spokesperson) now appear to have decided that the problem is childhood obesity, not hunger.

And he easily dismisses both problems with the simple explanation:

The children, especially of the poor, are not going to bed hungry. They are eating too much of the wrong foods… the problem is poor food choice, not hunger per se.

To claim that true hunger doesn’t exist in America, just because a lot of kids are fat from junk food, seems like an astonishing leap in reasoning that defies logic. But the reader’s attention is diverted by Gregory’s argument demolishing the claim that one in five American children face hunger on a regular basis. He explains that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not specifically monitor hunger, but divides family situations into three categories: “food secure,” “food insecure,” and “very low food secure.”

The definition of food insecurity includes worry about not being able to afford food, actually not being able to afford food, the substitution of cheaper groceries for more costly items, and the skipping of meals. And if these conditions apply frequently, then the family is classified as “very low food secure.”

According to the USDA figures, just over 20% of American households are “food insecure,” which is the origin of the claim that one child in five is hungry. Gregory points out that the numbers are compiled from all American households, not just the ones that include children, so that one-in-five figure is not accurate.

Gregory says that in reality, only 10% of households with children (or one in 10) are “food insecure.” And even then, since that can mean something as trivial as just worrying about being able to buy groceries or missing the occasional meal, Gregory does not feel that critics are justified in labeling their situation with the rather extreme term “hunger.”

Digging further into the statistics, he looks for a more acceptable definition, namely, instances of children not eating for an entire day. As it turns out, only 1/10th of 1% of families who were surveyed reported having suffered from such a dire fate. Therefore he concludes:

The USDA’s most direct measures yield a childhood hunger rate between one and two in a hundred, not one in five… These findings do not suggest, to say the least, an epidemic of childhood hunger.

With debates like this, quibbling about statistics and definitions, and bringing in the prevalence of obesity, attention can be misdirected and diverted from real issues. It may be true that the child hunger situation is not as severe as some believe. And it’s undeniably true that an awful lot of people eat an appalling amount of junk on their own free will, and feed it to their children, too. But does the fact that people make poor choices totally absolve the public sector from any responsibility?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Are One In Five American Children Hungry?,” Forbes.com, 11/20/11
Image by marinakvillatoro (Marina Kuperman Villatoro), used under its Creative Commons license.

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