On Food Stamps: Our Problem Is Obesity, Not Hunger

On Food Stamps: Our Problem Is Obesity, Not Hunger

By Paul Roderick Gregory - September 24, 2013

Throughout history, politicians have fabricated crises to justify their own solution to the crisis they themselves dreamed up. History is strewn with non-existent crises – the population bomb, global cooling, resource depletion,  freon destroying the ozone layer, and so on  – that threaten destruction unless the government acts. The U.S. “hunger crisis” is the latest in a long line of such relics.

The current hysteria over the House bill to cut food stamps by $40 billion over a decade  (see Krugman, Free to Be Hungry) will be framed against America’s “hunger crisis” fabricated by the powerful “hunger lobby.”  Democrats will use the “hunger crisis” as a cudgel to beat those who favor cuts in food stamps into bloody submission. How can any decent person favor cutting aid to hungry families, who, according to the crisis mongers, constitute one out of six of our neighbors? Few politicians have the fortitude to withstand the onslaught and the “crisisists” will likely win. A non-crisis will be “solved,” as real facts and real crises are ignored.

Facts are the enemy of the “crisisists.”  Therefore, we hear few of them, and the facts we hear are distorted beyond recognition. In this case, the facts speak for themselves: The United States, and increasingly the affluent world, has a crisis not of hunger but of obesity. The hunger crisis is a clever fabrication to serve political and commercial interests. If the hunger lobby’s facts are true, our hunger rates equal those of the poorest African and Asian countries.

A quick review of the real facts:

Fact 1: More than one of three Americans is obese.  

On the other hand:

Fact 2: One in a thousand adults and one in ten thousand children do not eat for a whole day on an average day.

Fact 3: Almost a third of a million Americans die annually of obesity. Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable deaths.

On the other hand:

Fact 4: Deaths from hunger (due primarily to eating disorders) are too rare to be recorded in mortality statistics.

(Readers can check my sources: Journal of American Medical Association, USDA Economic Research Service, S-9West Virginia Health Statistics Center.)

Although we have a powerful lobby devoted to pouring financial and political resources into solving a non-existent hunger crisis, there are no strong vested interests devoted to solving the real obesity crisis that imposes huge costs on families and on society at large.

The hunger lobby tells a quite different story from the above facts. Organizations like Feeding America, America’s fourth largest charity, use Beyonce, Ben Affleck, Miley Cyrus, Tim McGraw, Savannah Guthrie, and a lineup of other celebrities to inform us that 49 million Americans “struggle with hunger” and  “one in five children” do not have  enough to eat. Per Terry Bradshaw:  Millions of Americans “do not know where there next meal is coming from.” What a shame in a land of plenty. Send your checks to this address.  

There are no similar appeals to fight obesity. Informing the public about the obesity epidemic is left to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Ad Council. Their plodding “We Can!” campaign “offers tips on getting children to eat right, be more active and maintain a healthy weight.”  A typical “We Can” spot features an overweight kid asking his obese mother on a bare stage: “Mom, why am I fat?” Not quite the emotional appeal of weeping, hungry children and their distraught parents who cannot put food on the table through no fault of their own.

The anti-obesity Public Service Announcements are prepared pro bono.  The hunger ads are the best Madison Avenue has to offer. I have seen hundreds of the Beyonce-Affleck-Cyrus-McGraw-Guthrie-Bradshaw spots.  They even pop up on internet Korean drama! I have yet to see a “We Can!” commercial. Saturation versus silence. The anti-obesity lobby is David. The hunger lobby is Goliath!

But wait just a minute. Why complain? If one in six Americans are really hungry are we not obliged to saturate the airwaves with this terrible news? A little common sense informs us, however, that the one-in-six hungry American narrative cannot be true for the richest country on earth. If  so, U.S. hunger rates would be about same as some of the poorest developing countries (See United Nations), where half of child deaths under the age of five are due to hunger. Either Americans are as hungry as Africa or our hunger statistics are phony baloney.

For inquiring minds, the one-in-six-hungry-Americans statistic comes from the Department of Agriculture’s Household Food Security in the United States). USDA pollsters ask survey questions like: Did you worry that food would run out,  that you couldn’t afford balanced means, that you had to cut size of meals, substitute cheaper foods, skip meals, or not eat for an entire day? Households that answer a specified number of such questions affirmatively are said to be “food insecure.”  The latest (2012) figure is 49.0 million “food insecure” Americans, or the one-out-of-six figure, the celebrities tout.

Note the ads are careful not to say “hungry.” Instead, they say “struggling against hunger.” But food insecurity is not “hunger.” Food insecure families can cut meal sizes, substitute cheaper foods, or forego balanced meals without suffering physical hunger. According to this standard, most of us were food insecure at some point during our lives.

If we use only the USDA’s most direct observations of hunger, between two percent and a fraction of one percent of Americans report skipping meals, having hungry children, or children not eating a whole day. If the USDA measured physical hunger (as does the United Nations), and not food insecurity, America would be virtually hunger free. We do not hear this story from the hunger lobby.

Big time charities and advocacy groups, such as Feeding America and Food Research and Action Center, raise billions of dollars from public appeals, and their  corporate sponsors represent a Who’s Who of the agricultural giants, food processors, and marketing giants, such as Coca Cola, ConAgra, General Mills, and other household names. Eighty percent of the USDA’s budget is for food stamps and school lunches. It could not justify its size without food stamps. The Democratic Party uses food stamps to satisfy dependent constituents and to revile nasty Republicans who, they charge, want poor people to starve.

We lack a big time “anti-obesity lobby.” Instead, we hear primarily from poorly funded public health organizations. Eating wiser and healthier doesn’t gain voters, increase sales of major food processors, or attract billions of dollars of charitable giving, but it does make us healthier, more productive, and it does reduce health care spending, and who would not want that. The benefits are too diffused to raise the level of excitement that “one in six Americans are hungry” does.

Do not underestimate the ingenuity of the hunger lobby. Obesity, the hunger lobby is learning, represents “a crisis that should not be allowed to go to waste.” The thirty-two million children now receiving free school lunches is double the number of “food insecure” children. With half the school-lunch kids from middle-class homes, the hunger lobby has turned to obesity prevention as a rationale for not restricting school lunches to “food insecure” kids.  Feeding America, for example, cites “improving nutritional quality” as a second reason (after feeding America) in its brief for re-authorizing the school lunch program at the same or higher levels. 

The hunger-lobby’s Food Research and Action Center takes it a step further. It has decided that hunger causes obesity! So the root cause of obesity is hunger. Yes, you read right. The Food Research and Action Center  finds that the stress of living in  food-insecure households, the greater exposure to obesity-promoting advertising, fewer parks and playgrounds, the lack of full service groceries, and, not to forget, fast food chains in food-insecure neighborhoods, all make hungry people obese (See: FRAC, Fighting Hunger and Obesity).

So we have it from the horse’s mouth. If we have an obesity problem, it is caused by our hunger crisis. Well, as I have pointed out, we do not have a real hunger crisis So why do we have an obesity crisis?


Our political system is a kilter when it pours billions into solving a non-existent crisis and peanuts into solving a real crisis. The false crisis of one-in-six hungry Americans can gain votes for a political party, justify large budgets for federal agencies, and can give contributors a good feeling about themselves. The food crisis sidesteps issues of individual responsibility by placing the onus for feeding its people on government.  It is up to government to solve a problem for which the sufferers bear no responsibility.

Attacking the real crisis of obesity gains no votes, does not pour resources into the federal bureaucracy, does not attract huge donations, and preaches an uncomfortable message of  individual responsibility. We are all responsible for what we eat and how much we exercise. The federal government cannot bail us out of this problem. It can, however, hit us over the head daily with the incentives, facts, and instructions we need to solve it on our own. 

This article is reprinted from Forbes with permission from the Hoover Institution

Paul Roderick Gregory

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