November 02, 2003

Dual Response

I have two responses to this.

One is horribly snarky and can be summed up in one sentence: "But have you stopped buying cigarettes before food?"

The second is the real response - what's the best way to fix this?

    - Despite the nation's struggle with obesity, the Agriculture Department says more and more American families are hungry or unsure whether they can afford to buy food.

    Some 12 million families last year worried they didn't have enough money to buy food, and 32 percent of them actually experienced someone going hungry at one time or another, said a USDA report released Friday.
I want more data about these families. Do they have 11 children? Are the breadwinners working or trying to live off of welfare? I think that the depth and reasons for the problem need to be known before we can get all outraged and think about "the families' needs" and just pour money into the problem.

Obviously, it is a problem, though.

    Some 34.6 million Americans were living in poverty last year — 1.7 million more than in 2001, according to the Census Bureau.
That seems directly tied to the economy, okay.

    Hunger seems like an unlikely problem in a country where nearly 65 percent of adults and 13 percent of children are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (news - web sites).

    Barbara Laraia, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said hunger and obesity can coexist because many hungry families buy high-calorie foods that are low in nutrients.

    "They're dependent on foods that are going to make their bellies feel full, rather than on nutrients," Laraia said. "The diet is compromised."
I don't get this last bit - you're hungry on high calories? What is the definition of "hungry" for this study? If it's "undernourished," you'll find that with a LOT of people merely because they refuse to balance their diets.

Is there a concentration of the hungry people in cities? In rural areas? In one state or another? These are important things to know before calling to the public and/or government to address the issue.


Posted by hln at November 2, 2003 02:47 PM | Health/Fitness/Nutrition | TrackBack

WRT your snarky response and what should have been pointed out in the article, public assistance is too heavily weighted on the price of food and not enough on the price of housing. So, while the amount available to spend on food seems adequate--the amount of money for rising housing costs isn't. And when it comes to eating as opposed to making the rent, eating almost always loses.

That also helps answer your second response.

The article should have also explained what is meant by hunger as opposed to starving. Instead, it went for the misleading and erroneous angle about obesity.

Posted by: JadeGold at November 2, 2003 03:26 PM

FWIW, the way the "hungry" numbers are obtained is usually through polling along these lines -- "Has one of your children, in the past year, complained to you about hunger?" What parent hasn't had a kid come running up and say, "Mammmmmmaaaa, I'm HUUUUUUUUNGRY!"?

Posted by: Phelps at November 2, 2003 04:34 PM

Poverty statistics are always terribly misleading, to the point they are almost useless. I have a couple of short posts on the subject, if you're interested, here and here. One problem with poverty statistics is that they include college students and people in transition from one job to another. They are also based completely on income and do not consider assets.

[I like your site, by the way. :^)]

Posted by: Sophorist at November 2, 2003 06:06 PM


Polling is a bit more sophisticated than your example. And if you think about it, chances are very good the number of hungry in America are undercounted.

After all, how many parents are willing to admit their children occasionally go to bed hungry or aren't getting a nutritious diet?

Posted by: JadeGold at November 2, 2003 06:24 PM

The USDA has the report up on the website:

I haven't gone through the whole thing. Back when I worked on government studies, the actual questionnaires and so on were part of the full final report, but that might be the stuff of FOIA requests, not what's available on the 'net.

I remember when my brother lived in Chicago that the "grocery" stores in his neighborhood were pretty much liquor stores with overpriced convenience foods...a supermarket trip required a few hours and multiple transfers on public transportation. I think that contributes to the problem of bad food choices in some areas.

Posted by: nic at November 2, 2003 06:37 PM

I've done some research on the topic. A few things.

1) That is a crappily written article. The person should have be taken out back and shot. Okay.

2) Many, many people who qualify for public assistance (including mine for the last six months) refuse to receive it. Complicated issues there.

3) Many US families are one paycheck away from being homeless. We have no savings. Fiscal management would help, but at where is the line between teaching fiscal management and giving out an allowance? Those who do end up homeless often patronize food banks and suchlike.

4) Being a single breadwinner family is a risk. If you go down sick, your family is screwed. If both parents work at low-paying jobs, you can't afford childcare.[] Complicating this pattern, low-paying jobs (like Wal-Mart) often only offer major-medical care, [] making preventative medical care non-existent, which in turn makes the odds that a sickness is a major life event fairly high).

5) 12 million families. What percentage of that is the total? What percentage of those were actually living in poverty? Good statistical questions.

6) The Laraia bit is related, but totally not well explained.

a) Eating well is expensive. Fresh vegetables are often more expensive to buy than canned or frozen - and if you do get them, you must buy them frequently (meaning many trips to the grocery store) or they rot. If making a trip to the grocery store on public transportation is a cumbersome and timeconsuming affair (and it often is if you live in the inner city), and you work 40 hours a week and have two or three kids, you tend not to buy those expensive foods. Therefore, you buy foods of less quality that last longer.

b) In truly poor families, you give the best food to those that work physically harder - often the main breadwinner, often the man. If your husband is a manual laborer, you feed him the best of your kitchen - the best meat, the best vegetables - because your household depends on his health.

If you have limited income, there may not be much of the best to go around. Therefore, the rest of the family eats foods that aren't very good, because they're what is left over, and they're inexpensive. "many hungry families buy high-calorie foods that are low in nutrients"

In a typical low-income family, the husband eats the best food, the children eat the second-best, and the wife eats the worst. She feeds her children better than herself. If you have very limited money for food, the same rationale still applies - the breadwinner eats first, then the children (thanking their lucky stars that they get a school lunch), and if there is any food left, then the wife.

When I worked as a grocery store cashier, I saw this pattern played out time and time again, especially with migrant laborers. Did you know that migrant farmworker's children are exempt from child labor laws, and compulsory education laws? Did you know that migrant laborers are also exempt from minimum wage laws? And are often paid under the table? Did you know that because they're transients, they don't generally qualify for WIC, or other government benefits?

It broke my heart to see these families come in to the grocery store, once every other week, after payday, and buy $175 worth of food to feed all 12 or 14 of them. They generally used their money wisely, but there is no way that they could have possibly fed everyone well. And no, they didn't reproduce like rabbits - they live in extended families, so that grandma can watch the little ones.

If you're poorly educated, what little food you buy may be crappy for you, so you're both hungry because you didn't have enough, and malnourished because what you did buy was bad for you.

If you do have foodstamps or other ready access to food, junk food is so cheap that it's an easy way to de-stress. That's why you so often see fat, poor women.

FYI, 95% of the US population lives in a metropolitan area. I.e., only 5% lives in a rural area. [I know this, because I grew up in one of the truly rural areas.]

We like to talk about rural America, but the truth is that the vast majority of US citizens are urbanites, and most of the rest are suburbanites. The bulk of the population lives on the coasts.

Therefore, these issues need to be addressed on the urban, coastal level.

Posted by: Courtney at November 2, 2003 08:36 PM

I vividly remember living through the Carter administration, when pretty much the only thing my family could afford to eat was macaroni and cheese (generic, in a white box with a black label). It's easy to see how the poor can be obese and malnourished at the same time.

Posted by: Susie at November 2, 2003 11:33 PM

But a lot of the problem is education: people don't know what to buy that is cheap and healthful. (Hint: rice and beans as a protein source. Beef and chicken, used sparingly. Frozen and canned goods a lot of the time, with some fresh produce. In Southern California, the best place to buy produce is at the Mexican markets: the stuff doesn't always look as good as at trendy groceries, but it's cheap. Farmers' Markets are also great places to go when you're on a budget.) The tragedy is people not learning to cook, and becoming dependent on convenience foods that are pricey and unhealthful. Or they go to McDonald's, which is sadder still.

Posted by: Little Miss Attila at November 19, 2003 03:49 AM