“Food insecure” sounds better than “hungry kids.”

Government statistics are the drag queens of the number world. That sexy figure representing positive progress relies on lipstick and a push-up bra. Underneath the props, things may not be so hot looking.

Here’s what I mean: A study posted on the website for the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reports that the number of “food insecure” households declined last year. It notes that

“…85.5 percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2010, meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The remaining households (14.5 percent) were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.4 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.”

You can’t blame the folks reporting on these findings for their narrative habit of backing into the bad news. After all, it IS significant and positive that more than 85 percent of American households are on the full-stomach end of the graph. And there has been some improvement in the toughest cases — the year before we had 5.7 percent of households with very low food security.

The bad news is posted on a page a couple more clicks into the site. There we learn:

  • In 2010, 48.8 million people lived in food-insecure households.
  • 11.3 million adults lived in households with very low food security.
  • 16.2 million children lived in food-insecure households in which children, along with adults, were food insecure.

That’s a lot of hungry folks, and remember these stats are from 2010, and the economy has been in tough shape since then. A map showing how individual states stack up is not comforting. Isn’t it tough enough to live in Wyoming without having to be hungry? No insult intended, but it sure seems like eating would be a major activity in a state like this. Museum-hopping or major sports events aren’t going to fill much time.

More troubling is the question of definitions. I have this sinking feeling that “access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life” is not the same thing as people–especially kids–eating well every day. Hey, I’ve got access to the Library of Congress and a lot of dental floss, but I’m still reading countless trashy novels and facing gum disease.

All cheap shots at the government aside, the gathering of this info is important. Trends in how we eat and what groceries we buy are very useful indicators of real-life conditions, especially in shaky economies. Now we just need to read the stuff…and shame our elected representatives into refusing to accept such numbers as good enough.

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett






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