Thursday, December 18, the United States Conference of Mayors will
release its annual report on hunger and homelessness in America.
The mayors have released a similar report each year since 1987. The
report measures "hunger" by the number of persons using food banks
or soup kitchens. The Conference of Mayors has reported that the
number of persons using food banks or soup kitchens in major cities
has increased substantially in each of the past 16 years, and it is
expected that a similar increase will be reported this year.
mayors' hunger reports, however, are vague. They do not give the
number of persons using food banks or soup kitchens. Instead, they
merely report the rate of increase in use compared to the prior
year. In 2002, for example, the report stated that emergency food
use had increased by 19 percent relative to 2001.
There are three reasons to believe the
mayors' claims of rapid and continuing increases in "hunger" or
food bank use are inaccurate and exaggerated. Specifically, the
implausible rate of growth.
The mayors have reported that
food bank/soup kitchen use has increased at an average rate of 17
percent per annum for the past decade and a half. The number of
persons receiving emergency food aid appears nearly to double every
four years or so.
According to the mayors' data, the number of
persons receiving emergency food aid is 12 times higher today than
in 1986. This seems implausible. The U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA) reports that, at present, between 18 million and 24 million
persons receive emergency food aid each year. If the mayors' data
were accurate and representative of the nation, it would mean that
fewer than 2 million persons received food aid in 1986 (one-twelfth
of the present number).
- Are contradicted
by U.S. Census Bureau surveys. Census data show no
increase in the use of food pantries and soup kitchens in either
central cities or the nation as a whole between 1995 and 2001. By
contrast, the mayors' reports claim an increase in use of 150
percent during the same period.
- Are contradicted
by Second Harvest reports. The mayors' data are
contradicted by detailed surveys conducted by Second Harvest, the
major supplier to food banks. Second Harvest reports that emergency
food use increased by 9 percent between 1997 and 2001. The mayors'
reports claim that emergency food use increased by nearly 100
percent during the same period.
mayors' annual reports show an implausible growth in food bank use
throughout the past 16 years. Their data are contradicted by other
more reliable surveys. One possible explanation is that the 25
major cities surveyed in the mayors' reports are very
unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. This seems unlikely. It
seems more likely that the mayors' survey methods, which rely on
self reports of food bank operators and employ vague counting
standards, are flawed and their conclusions inaccurate.
Conference of Mayors' Report
year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors releases A Status Report on
Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities, which presents an
estimate of housing and homeless data from the previous year in
major U.S. cities. Year after year, these
documents consistently report that hunger and homelessness are "on
the rise in major U.S. cities."
Conference of Mayors began to collect data on hunger and
homelessness in 1983 and has been releasing these data in their
current form since 1987. The most recent report, from 2002, is
compiled from a survey of the 25 U.S. cities whose mayors were
members of the Conference's Task Force on Hunger and
Homelessness. It is expected that the 2003
version will be released on Thursday, December 18.
compiling the report, the Conference distributes questionnaires to
each city. These questionnaires ask for estimates of (1) the demand
for emergency food assistance and emergency shelter and the
capacity of local agencies to meet that demand, (2) the causes of
hunger and homelessness and the demographics of the populations
experiencing these problems, (3) exemplary programs of efforts in
the cities to respond to hunger and homelessness, (4) the
availability of affordable housing for low-income people, and (5)
the outlook for the future and the impact of the economy on hunger
2002 report finds that requests for emergency food
assistance--provided through a variety of resources including food
banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens--increased by an average of
19 percent over the past year. Requests increased by an average of
17 percent among families with children and 19 percent among
elderly persons. Similar findings are
expected in the upcoming 2003 Conference of Mayors report.
Twelve-fold Increase in Food Bank Use
noted above, the mayors' report does not give figures on the number
of persons receiving emergency food aid. Instead, it simply reports
the percentage of growth in emergency food use from year to year.
Over the past 16 years, the mayors have reported that food bank use
has grown at an average rate of 17 percent per year. (See Appendix,
Table A.) According to the mayors' reports, food bank use roughly
doubles every four years.
the mayors' annual growth figures are seen in aggregate, the
picture is quite alarming. Chart 1 shows the growth in emergency
food use from 1986 to 2001 according the mayors' data. (Since the
mayors' reports do not specify actual numbers of users, 1986 is set
as base year equaling 100.) If the mayors' figures are accurate,
there were 12 times more people receiving food aid in 2001 than in
Mayors' Reports Contradicted by Census
United States Census Bureau also tracks utilization of food
pantries, food banks, and soup kitchens in its annual Current
Population Survey. In 1995, the Census Bureau began asking
Americans two questions: "In the last 12 months, did you ever get
emergency food from a church, a food pantry, or a food bank?" and
"In the last 12 months did you ever eat any meals at a soup
These questions were repeated in 1997, 1999, and 2001.
results are shown in Table 1. In the seven-year period between 1995
and 2001, the Census survey showed that the number of persons using
food pantries or soup kitchens dropped slightly from 9.2 million to
8.7 million. The number of persons receiving emergency food in
central cities remained unchanged at 2.8 million.
is important to note that the number of persons using emergency
food each year does appear to be significantly underreported in the
Census surveys. However, since the Census methodology is exactly
the same each year, there is no reason to believe that the
undercounting would have increased or de-creased between 1995 and
2001. Thus, while the absolute numbers of persons reported to
receive emergency food in Table 1 may be too low, the trend
(increase or decrease) over time reported by the Census Bureau is
likely to be fairly accurate.
Chart 2 shows, the trend reported by the Conference of Ma-yors over
the same period is radically different. While the Census shows no
growth in emergency food use between 1995 and 2001, the mayors'
reports show that emergency food use in major cities increased 150
Mayors' Reports Contradicted by Second
America's Second Harvest, which is the
largest food distributor in the nation, consisting of a network of
nearly 200 banks, also provides data on the incidence of hunger and
food insecurity in the United States. In its Hunger 1997: The Facts
and Faces report, Second Harvest estimated that 21.4 million people
sought emergency food assistance from a food pantry, food kitchen,
or shelter at least once during 1997. In the next version of the
report, Hunger in America 2001, Second Harvest reported that 23.3
million clients sought emergency food assistance at least once
during 2001. Thus, the two Second Harvest
surveys show a 9 percent increase in emergency food use in the four
years between 1997 and 2001.
contrast, the mayors' hunger reports show that emergency food use
increased by almost 100 percent between 1997 and 2001. This rate of
increase is 10 times greater than that shown by Second Harvest. If
the mayors' growth figures were accurate and representative of the
nation, the number of persons receiving emergency food aid would
have grown from 21.4 million in 1997 (as reported by Second
Harvest) to around 40 million in 2001. That figure would be 17
million higher than the figure reported by Second Harvest for
Potential Problems in Conference of
U.S. Conference of Mayors report may not provide an accurate or
complete understanding of the utilization of food pantries and food
banks for several reasons. First, the data are compiled based on
surveys of city officials, with very minimal apparent documentation
requirements. City officials in the 25 surveyed cities are asked to
report changes in demand at emergency food providers and city
services by reporting whether the demand for emergency food
assistance has increased, decreased, or stayed the same, and by
what percentage. Respondents are simply encouraged to "include any
other data which supports it."
Another reason that the mayors' survey may
overcount the growth of emergency food use may be that it fails to
account properly for the food pantries that close down. According
to USDA estimates, approximately 20 percent of emergency food
providers go out of business each year. New providers generally
open to replace those that close.
Scrupulous accounting of the food banks
that close is necessary for an accurate assessment of changes in
emergency food use. If a surveyor reports only increases in food
delivery in newly opened and continuing food banks, but fails to
account fully for banks that ceased operation, the result will be a
considerable overcount in the growth rate of emergency food use.
Since the mayors' report provides only the sketchiest account of
how its numbers are collected, it is impossible to determine to
what extent this problem may contribute to the mayors' very rapid
How Many People Use Food Banks?
2001, to determine the number of persons using food banks and soup
kitchens in the United States, the USDA conducted the National
Emergency Food Assistance System Client Survey. On the basis of
that survey, the USDA estimates that 4.3 million persons are served
by food pantries in a given week.
Using these figures, in addition to the
number of times a person reports visiting a food pantry during a
given month, the USDA estimates that 12.5 million people are served
by a food pantry in a given month and between 18 million and 24
million persons are served at least once during the course of a
year. These figures are generally consistent with the estimate made
by America's Second Harvest of 23.3 million people seeking
emergency food assistance from a food bank, pantry, or kitchen at
least once during 2001.
About three-quarters of the individuals
receiving emergency food say they prefer getting free food from a
pantry, as opposed to using government aid, such as food stamps. Roughly
three-quarters of the households using food pantries have no
Is Hunger Widespread?
many people in the United States experience hunger? The best answer
to that question is provided by the Household Food Security Survey,
conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture each year since
1995. The USDA defines hunger not as the use of food pantries, but
as physical discomfort caused by actual food shortages due to a
lack of funds to obtain food. The USDA makes clear that hunger is
not the same as malnutrition and that most hunger experienced in
the United States is short-term.
According to the USDA, on a typical day,
less than one American in 200 will experience hunger due to a lack
of money to buy food. The hunger rate rises
somewhat when examined over a longer time period; according to the
USDA, some 6.9 million Americans (2.4 percent of the population)
were hungry at least once during 2002. Nearly all hunger is
short-term and episodic rather than continuous.
92 percent of those who experienced hunger in 2002 were adults, and
only 8 percent were children. Overall, some 567,000 children (or
0.8 percent of all children) were hungry at some point in 2002. In a
typical month, roughly one child in 400 skipped one or more meals
because the family lacked funds to buy food.
Has Hunger Increased?
According to the USDA, overall hunger has
declined slightly since measurement be-gan in 1995. In that year,
4.1 million households had at least one person who experienced
hunger at some point during the year; by 2002, the number had
fallen to 3.8 million households.
Hunger among children, however, has
declined substantially since the mid-1990s. As Chart 4 shows, the
number of hungry children was cut by a third between 1995 and 2002.
According to the USDA, in 1995, there were 887,000 hungry children;
by 2002, the number had fallen to 567,000.
What About Food Insecurity Without
USDA also reports on the number of households that are "food
insecure without hunger." Advocacy groups often label these
families as "at risk" of hunger, although the USDA explicitly
states that these households are not hungry and do not face food
shortages. These families do face financial constraints in
purchasing food at some point or points during the year, and they
report anxiety that at some future time they may not be able to buy
sufficient food. They may temporarily substitute cheaper foods for
regular items in their diet.
According to the USDA, 25.5 million
individuals (or 9.1 percent of the population) were "food insecure
without hunger" at some point during 2002. This condition is
generally temporary. The number of persons who were food insecure
without hunger dropped slightly between 1995 and 2002.
Overall, some 97 percent of the U.S.
population lives in families that reported they had "enough food to
eat" during the entire year, although not always the kinds of foods
they would prefer. Around 2.5 percent stated that their families
"sometimes" did not have "enough to eat" due to money shortages,
and one-half of 1 percent (0.5 percent) said they "often" did not
have enough to eat due to lack of funds.
According to the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, the number of Americans who are "hungry" has dropped
slightly since measurement began in 1995. The number of hungry
children, however, has declined substantially.
Policymakers should be wary of the claims
of "increasing hunger" that are likely to be made in the upcoming
2003 U.S. Conference of Mayors report. Year after year, the mayors'
hunger report shows an alarming increase in use of food banks. The
mayors have reported that use of food banks in major cities has
increased at an average rate of 17 percent per year for the past
decade and a half. According to the mayors, food-bank use roughly
doubles every four years.
mayors' figures, however, seem implausible; they are contradicted
by other more reliable surveys. The continuing broadcast of
alarming but inaccurate figures can only distract from real
problems facing the nation.
Melissa G. Pardue is the Harry and
Jeanette Weinberg Fellow in Social Welfare Policy, Robert E. Rector
is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., is
the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Fellow in Statistical Welfare
Research in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage