Imagine eliminating the word "hunger" in this country. Well, this Open Forum in the Chronicle today lets us see that this is what the Bush administration is now up too. First, they cut taxes on the wealthiest people in the country, and then they pop us with this. It is especially sobering as those of us who have the means to do so spend this week stuffing first our refrigerators and cupboards and then our stomachs.
'My stomach is touching my back'
Monday, November 20, 2006
The federal government has decided to drop the word "hunger" from its vocabulary, according to a new report released by the USDA. The reason? USDA sociologist Mark Nord, the author of the report, claims that the term "hungry" is "not a scientifically accurate term for the specific phenomenon being measured in the food security survey. We don't have a measure of that condition."
The USDA will now use the term "very low food security" to describe people who used to be considered "food insecure with hunger." Statistically speaking, hunger will no longer exist in America.
The release of the report, however, follows five straight years of increases in the number of Americans unable to afford the food they need. Nord and the USDA may feel comfortable saying there is no hunger in America, simply because they can't find a precise scientific measure to describe it. It is not so difficult. In fact, it's so easy a child could do it. A young boy at a San Francisco food pantry knows exactly how to describe hunger. He says, "My stomach is touching my back."
To be fair, the USDA's point is not that hunger doesn't exist, but that this particular survey, the annual "Household Food Security in the United States," is designed to measure food security -- an economic and social condition related to limited or uncertain access to food. Hunger is a physiological condition.
Because the USDA doesn't ask survey participants about their physiological symptoms, it can't claim that the study measures "hunger." Unfortunately, no national government survey exists that does measure hunger in a more precisely defined way, and there are no plans to start one. In the meantime, the "Household Food Security" study is our federal government's principal gauge of -- forgive my use of the term -- hunger in America.
If the government stops using the word "hunger," people may begin to believe that hunger has gone away. It hasn't. Just ask that little boy whose stomach is touching his back.
Whatever you call the problem, the statistics are grim: 35 million people in America are living in food-insecure households. And while the good news is that this represents an 8 percent drop nationally over last year, here in California the rate of food insecurity has remained unchanged since 2000.
The USDA's study classifies 11 percent of Californians as food insecure. In San Francisco, the rate is even higher. Based on U.S. Census data, 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 4 children in San Francisco face the threat of hunger. Hunger is especially devastating for our most vulnerable citizens: children and seniors. From lower academic achievement to long-term cognitive impairment, chronic disease, illness and obesity, the effects of childhood hunger can last -- or shorten -- a lifetime. For seniors, malnutrition can become a major health risk, often resulting in extended hospital stays and increased health-care costs.
Yet for the past six years, the Bush administration has been cutting food-assistance programs, and in some cases, proposing to eliminate them. For example, the administration's 2007 budget aims to "zero out" the national Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which serves nearly 10,000 low-income seniors in San Francisco alone, and move these people to the Food Stamp program.
There are two main obstacles to this working. First, seniors who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are ineligible for Food Stamps in California - and almost all low-income seniors receive SSI. Additionally, a senior with just $3,100 in savings would be ineligible for Food Stamps but still qualify for the supplemental food program.
The continued unraveling of our nation's food safety net, will mean that more elderly Americans will go to bed hungry, more working poor parents will have to choose between paying the rent or putting food on the table, and more children will perform poorly in school and be unprepared for productive work lives.
The new Democratic-led Congress has an important opportunity to reverse these policies. They can take the lead in combatting hunger by restoring and increasing funding for the government food-assistance programs that provide vital nutrition to low-income Americans. And they should never be afraid to call hunger by its name.
Paul Ash is the executive director of the San Francisco Food Bank (www.sffoodbank.org).