November 21, 2000

November 21, 2000 | Commentary on Political Thought

Today's Special: Another "Hunger Crisis"

It's Thanksgiving, and political activists are serving up a familiar dish: cries of alarm about a "hunger crisis" in America. The Chicago-based group America's Second Harvest, for example, says millions of American children suffer from hunger. The Food Research and Action Center claims that 29 percent of all U.S. children -- nearly one out of every three -- is hungry or "at risk" of hunger.

But such startling claims are refuted by the federal government's own data. Surveys conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services show that 96 percent of American families report that they have "enough food to eat." About 3 percent say they "sometimes" don't have enough food. Only one half of 1 percent say they "often" don't have enough food.

These data also reveal an ironic fact: Nearly half of the people who claim they lack food are overweight. In fact, obesity is most common among the tiny group claiming they "often" lack food.

Are one-third of U.S. children hungry? In reality, American children, both rich and poor, are remarkably well nourished. The average amount of protein, vitamins and minerals consumed by poor children is virtually identical with what middle-class children consume. In most cases, it greatly exceeds recommended norms. For example, poor children, on average, take in more than 200 percent of the "recommended daily allowance" of protein, a relatively expensive nutrient.

Health problems relating to the under-consumption of food are scarce among both poor and middle-class children. Thinness (low weight for height) and stunting (low height for age) are virtually non-existent among both groups. In fact, poor American children are simply giants by international or historic standards. By the time poor boys reach age 18, they are, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than a middle-class boy of the same age in the late 1950s.

Poor Americans do face health problems related to diet, but these mainly stem from an over-consumption of food, not food scarcity. In a nation plagued by excess calories, the poor are most likely to be overweight. Nearly half of poor adult women are overweight, compared to a third of non-poor women.

Medical experts have expressed concern over the growth of obesity among American children. Unfortunately, obesity is most common among poor children. A recent medical study of low-income black and Hispanic students in Central Harlem found that 25 percent were "obese," and more than half of that group was "super-obese."

Recently, the government's principal food program for children (Women, Infants and Children) issued a study claiming that it wasn't responsible for the alarming growth of obesity among poor children. Whenever you have the government's major feeding program denying responsibility for obesity among the poor, it seems reasonable to conclude that activist claims of a widespread "hunger crisis" are just a bit overblown.

Finally, many believe that lack of money forces poor people to eat low-quality diets deficient in nutrients and high in fat. But government survey data show that nutrient richness (the amount of vitamins, minerals and protein per calorie of food) is the same for poor and middle- class Americans. And the diets of poor people, on average, are no higher in fat than the diets of the middle class.

Some poor people, particularly in the inner city, do have diets that are very high in fat. But this problem can be blamed on the heavy consumption of take-out "fast food." A diet laden with "Big Macs" and "Super-Size Fries" isn't healthy, but it's hardly evidence of a food shortage or a lack of money to buy food.

I'm not suggesting that periodic hunger doesn't occur in America. But far from being a crisis, hunger is a limited problem, and one that usually doesn't last very long. For example, U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys show that, in the last month, about one American child in 200 missed one or more meals due to the family's lack of money for food. This is a cause for concern, of course, but it is far short of a national epidemic.

More importantly, when temporary hunger does occur, it is often linked to behavioral problems that are far more troubling than simple food shortages. In the inner city, for example, up to 80 percent of children are born outside of marriage. Drugs and crime are rampant. Activist groups may think they're doing poor Americans a favor, but bogus claims of a "hunger crisis" only distract attention from these all-too-real problems.

Robert E. Rector is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Robert Rector
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

Related Issues: Political Thought

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