Significant Food Shortages Rare in America

COMMENTARY Hunger and Food Programs

Significant Food Shortages Rare in America

Nov 24, 2010 3 min read
Mike Gonzalez

Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum Senior Fellow

Mike is the Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

As Thanksgiving arrives, we usually hear an increased clamor about "hunger" in America. This year is no exception. Timed to the holiday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture just released its annual report on household food security in the United States.

According to the USDA, some 17 million households, or 14.7 percent of all households, experienced "household food insecurity" at some point in 2009. Some 50 million people (or 17 percent of the population) lived in households with some form of food insecurity.

While these numbers sound ominous, it's important to understand what "food insecurity" means.

According to the USDA, "food insecurity" is almost always a recurring and episodic problem rather than a chronic condition. In 2009, about 10.6 million homes, or two-thirds of food-insecure households, experienced a condition termed "low food security." According to USDA, these families "typically … reported few, if any, indications of reduced food intake."

However, financial pressures did force them to reduce "variety in their diets" or rely on a "few basic foods" at various times in the year. Given that some 10 million Americans are unemployed, the fact that millions of households have been temporarily forced to eat cheaper, simpler meals at some point in the year should not be surprising.

The remaining one-third of food-insecure households, with 17.6 million people, experienced "very low food security" in 2009. According to the USDA, "very low food security" means that, at least once during the year, some members of the household reduced their intake because of a lack of funds to purchase food. Most of these households temporarily cut back the sizes of their meals. At the extreme, about 1.7 percent of all adults in the U.S. went at least one entire day without eating because of a lack of funds for food.

Fortunately, children are generally shielded from food cutbacks and food insecurity. Only one child in 75 went "hungry" for even a single day during 2009 because of a lack of food in the home. And only one child in 100 missed even a single meal during the entire year because of food shortfalls in the home.

Political advocates proclaim that the USDA reports show there is widespread chronic hunger in the U.S. But the USDA clearly and specifically does not identify food insecurity with the more intense condition of "hunger," which it defines as "discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain … caused by prolonged involuntary lack of food." As the USDA report explicitly states, most "food insecure" homes did not cut back their intake at all.

Interestingly, the USDA report shows that millions of families that are judged "food secure" have lower incomes (relative to family size and age) than do many homes that are "food insecure." This same pattern appears in each annual food security report. It indicates that "food insecurity" is, to a considerable degree, dependent on how efficiently a family allocates its food dollars and how it distributes its available food over the course of a month.

Another rarely discussed issue: The government's own data show that the overwhelming majority of food-insecure adults are, like most adult Americans, overweight or obese. Among adult males experiencing food insecurity, fully 70 percent are overweight or obese. Nearly three-quarters of adult women experiencing food insecurity are either overweight or obese, and nearly half (45 percent) are obese. Virtually no food-insecure adults are underweight.

It is true that increases in the food-stamp rolls buffered Americans from significant shortages during the severe recession. Of course, it is perfectly reasonable for food stamps and other welfare programs to expand during periods of severe unemployment. However, since the recession ended, welfare spending should return to pre-recession levels.

Unfortunately, that's not what President Obama intends. He plans to use the latest recession to mask a permanent expansion in the welfare state.

In his first two years in office, Mr. Obama has increased federal means-tested welfare spending by a third. And his own budget documents show that he plans for welfare spending to continue rising.

By 2013, government will spend nearly $1 trillion per year on means-tested anti-poverty programs, providing cash, food, housing, medical care and social services to low-income Americans. (These figures do not include Social Security or Medicare.) This will amount to more than $20,000 for each poor person in the nation.

Of course, this dramatic expansion of the welfare state will not be paid for. Mr. Obama plans to "spread the wealth" in the U.S. by borrowing from the Chinese. This is an extravagance the nation cannot afford.

Robert Rector is senior research fellow in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Washington Times