How We Talk About Hunger

By Jonathan Lewis
You may have heard murmurs of a recent report released by the USDA. This report addresses what is called “food security.” If you’re not familiar with the term, you might conclude this research concerns protecting our food sources from terrorism or assuring our food is free of pathogens, both logical and important topics for the USDA to address. In this report however, researchers use “food security” as wonky jargon referring to “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”
The term was adopted in response to a lack of a standardized definition of hunger and therefore the inability to measure it. Hunger definitions vary greatly with some describing it as physical: “the uneasy or painful sensation caused by a lack of food” or circumstantial: “the recurrent and involuntary lack of access to food.” By creating a food security scale, researchers can look to a clear picture representing what percent of the country is self-reportedly accessing an essential amount of food 365 days a year.
The report released by USDA is based on data collected from approximately 43,000 U.S. households. These households are asked up to18 questions regarding their food intake over the past 12 month period. The survey includes questions such as: “In the last 12 months we’re you ever hungry, but didn’t eat because there wasn’t enough money for food?” Researchers also classify food insecure households as either “low food security” or “very low food security.”
The research found that in 2011 almost 15 percent of U.S. households were food insecure at some point during the year. That means an astonishing 18 million American households struggled to put food on the table. Of those, six percent experienced very low food security. In other words of the 18 million households, 7 million of them faced extreme difficulties in securing food. Here in Texas our citizens fare even worse than the national average with a food insecurity rate of 18.5 percent. This translates to 1.6 million households or one out of every five of our neighbors in Texas.
While the term “hunger” is no longer used in the USDA food insecurity report to provide clarity in the research, we still frequently hear it used. Reporters, politicians, and advocates all use “hunger” to convey their message. Regardless of which expression you choose, it’s important to remember and emphasize that food security is measuring Americans ability to access one of the most essential and basic human needs. The 2012 USDA Household Food Security report tells a story of inequality and human rights concerns in a country where resources are anything but scarce.

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