Even Matt Damon and Beyonce Could Not Sell the True Child Hunger Statistic (One In A Thousand)

Even Matt Damon and Beyonce Could Not Sell the True Child Hunger Statistic (One In A Thousand)

By Paul Roderick Gregory - June 3, 2013

To understand the magnitude of childhood hunger, we need a snapshot of how many children are going hungry at a particular time. Child-hunger lobbyists wish us to think about the statistics they cite as daily occurences.  According to a typical alarmist, sixteen million children “face hunger every day.” Or  NBC Today Show‘s Al Roker hosts “Child Hunger Ends Here,” a 30-minute nationally televised special sponsored by Feeding America and ConAgra, putting a spotlight on hunger in America. “It just doesn’t make sense. It can’t be possible that 17 million children (are) going to bed hungryeach night,” says Roker.

These are huge figures — more than one in five children are hungry every day — that suggest a massive failure of food stamps, free school lunches, and private charity.  After all this time and public and private expense, so many children remain hungry in a rich country like the United States! What a disgrace! We are supposed to react.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes data from which one can calculate how many children are hungry on a given day. (Just as the Census Bureau asks where you live on the day of the census).  The conclusion for the number of hungry children is (extended drum roll, please): One tenths of one percent of children, or one per thousandEven if we use the USDA’s liberal measure of hunger as at least one incident over  twelve months, we get a child-hunger figure of one percent.

Such  low figures (one in a thousand or one in a hundred) will be ignored by the hunger lobby, food stamps expansionists, and the media because it suggests a problem that has been solved. (Discussion would then have to turn to childhood obesity, as it already has).

As the Senate farm bill goes to the House, the child hunger lobby is shifting into high gear.  The food stamps program is part of the farm bill, and fear is building that the skinflint Republicans will try to trim SNAP, as the food stamp program is currently called. New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, likens any cut in food stamps to taking food from the mouths of babes. Republicans, Krugman charges, want to “first, shrink it (food stamps); then, effectively kill it.”

According to the hunger lobby, America faces a huge problem with childhood hunger. Most Americans have heard from America’s fourth largest charity Feeding America that “more than 1 in 5 children are at risk of hunger,” or that “16.7 million children under 18 live in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food necessary for a healthy life.”  Feeding America ads, featuring Beyonce and Matt Damon, solemnly intoning about the masses of Americans “struggling with hunger.”

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has published estimates of childhood hunger for decades in its annual Household Food Security in the United States. The USDA does not estimate “hunger” directly. Instead, it measures the “food security” of households. Largely ignored is that the USDA asks specific “hunger” questions about children in the household to determine their nutritional status separately.

For understandable reasons, the child-hunger lobby never mentions the government’s own estimates of the number of children at “risk of hunger,” as they like to say. This figure is much too low.

According to the USDA’s most direct measures of childhood hunger, 1.3 percent of families reported that a child was hungry, 0.8 percent answered that a child skipped a meal, and 0.2 percent reported that a child went without food for an entire day at least once over the past year. Usually, if a family reported one of these items, it checked them all.

The USDA’s finding therefore is that around one percent of families with children have children who experienced hunger at least one day in the last twelve months.  This is already a far cry from the “one in five” bandied about by the child-hunger lobby.

If we use the USDA’s technical study to convert their at least “once-in-the-last-twelve-months” results into a snapshot of one survey day, we find thatone tenths of one percent of  children (71,000 in total) were hungry on a given day. This adds up to two hungry children per zip code.

Where then does the hunger lobby’s “one in five” figure come from? It is the USDA’s estimate of the percentage of “food insecure” families with children. A family is counted as food insecure  if it worries the food it bought will run out, can’t afford balanced meals, substitutes cheaper food for more expensive, cuts meal sizes, eats less than it should, or loses weight.  (I am “food insecure” on one, and hopefully two, of these counts). For all families with children, the most direct measures of adult hunger – an adult not eating for a whole day at least once — was limited to 1.6 percent. Again, these figures refer to the incidence of hunger events over the last twelve months.

A visit to the Feeding America website is instructive. According to a Forbes study, it is America’s fourth largest charity, collecting more than a billion dollars in donations. Its CEO earns in salary alone more than a half million dollars. Its corporate sponsors represent America’s largest agribusiness companies, food processors, and retailers (Conagra, Food Lion,  General Mills,  Kellogs, Kroger , PepsiCo , and Walmart). What better way to get your product to customers than as purchased by Feeding America’s food kitchens from private donations?

If Feeding America used the USDA’s real childhood hunger statistics, even “useful fools” like Beyonce, Matt Damon, or Al Roker (Should we include economist Paul Krugman in that category?) would be hard pressed to bring in donations with the pitch that “one in a thousand children must struggle for food every day.”

It is a shame, indeed, if even a tiny percentage of children must skip meals for economic reasons, but Congress and the public should at least know the true figures.  James Madison warned that democracy will fail without an informed electorate. As the House takes up the farm bill under intense lobbying from “Big Agriculture” (Archer Midland Daniels, Conagra and their like), its members and the American people should at least know that one in a thousand children are subject to childhood hunger on a daily basis, not Madison Avenue’s one in five.

This article originally appeared in Forbes on May 2. It is reprinted with permission from the Hoover Institution.

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