Reality check on American “hunger”

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Hunger here vs. hunger there:

There has been a fair amount of buzz lately (examples here, here, here, here) about “food insecurity” in the U.S. According to the Reuters headline, one in seven Americans is short of food. In looking into the data, what has surprised us is how different the meaning of “hunger” is when we’re talking about the U.S. vs. the developing world.

Developing-world hunger: 30% of children underweight

The “food insecurity” categories are derived from people’s answers to questions like “We worried about whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more” and “We couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals” (full list on pg 3). The details of the answers are found on page 45:

Note in particular the difference regarding children. In the developing world, as shown above, severe child hunger is rampant. In the U.S., even in “food insecure” families, it’s extraordinarily rare for children to go hungry even temporarily. And indeed, World Bank data estimates that 1.3% of U.S. children under 5 are “underweight” – less than the 2.3% that would be expected in a fully normal distribution.

On the one hand the poor supposedly live in “food deserts” and so get fat. On the other hand, there’s a lot of hunger in America. Something doesn’t make sense. As someone whose family is from Bangladesh I have seen plenty of hungry people face to face. They look really hungry. If you’re really chronically hungry you can’t mask it with a stiff upper lip, you just look starved out, and a bowl of rice with salt is a luxury. They’re really short too. When I went to Bangladesh in the late 1980s for a visit I was much taller than many adult beggars despite being a pre-teen, and I was always around the 50th percentile on the height distributions in elementary school.

The fact that fewer American children are very light than would be expected under a normal distribution is also interesting. Assuming weight is a quantitative trait, like height or IQ, one would expect the deviation from the normal distribution to produce a “fatter tail”, not an attenuated one.



  1. “the poor supposedly live in “food deserts”": a few years ago I saw this notion demolished – at least for Britain – by a paper in the BMJ, where some medics had used the investigatory technique of walking around and looking. It might be that “food deserts” was just another of those cases where an American idea was imported and applied to Britain without any critical thought whatsoever.

  2. Glad someone is talking about this, it completely infuriates me when in a social situation some moron starts talking about hunger in america.  
    Yeah they are so hungry that they are morbidly obese. 
    Or perhaps they are stiil hungry after a 3500 cal meal.

  3. Social-service agencies and quasi-Marxist politicians require “hunger” to exist in America. Therefore it will be found.

  4. I’ve never quite understood the concept of “food deserts” or “food insecurity.” The San Joaquin Valley of California has a very high obesity rate, and yet there’s plenty of fresh produce available there. When I visited there for a project, I saw a lot of overweight Latinos picking fruits and vegetables and selling them by the roadside. Clearly they wouldn’t be selling them by the roadside if there weren’t people buying them. At the same time, I’m old that these overweight Latino migrants are “food insecure.” WTF?! 
    It also puzzles me when I hear about poor “food insecure” people drinking lots of soda. There’s a perfectly healthy, inexpensive alternative to soda that can fully satisfy your fluid needs known as “water.” Am I supposed to believe that poor Americans don’t have access to cheap water, and that they’re forced to resort to soda? Please!

  5. This goes for standard of living in general. Look at how good the “poverty-stricken” in America have it: 
    The most recent data is from the recent easy money binge, so it may be a percentage point or so lower right now, but still. 
    Do nearly 100% of the poor in India, Bolivia, or wherever, have a refrigerator, stove, and color TV? Do 79% have an air conditioner, and about 75% at least one car?

  6. how timely
    ?I think the response of the program has been tremendous,? said Kevin Concannon, an under secretary of agriculture, ?but we?re mindful that there are another 15, 16 million who could benefit.? 
    Nationwide, food stamps reach about two-thirds of those eligible, with rates ranging from an estimated 50 percent in California to 98 percent in Missouri. Mr. Concannon urged lagging states to do more to enroll the needy, citing a recent government report that found a sharp rise in Americans with inconsistent access to adequate food. 
    ?This is the most urgent time for our feeding programs in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression,? he said. ?It?s time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people.?

  7. > Social-service agencies and quasi-Marxist politicians require “hunger” to exist in America. Therefore it will be found. 
    What we *really* need is some interminable marxist guerrillas like the FARC, then we would have a level of squalor that would need no exaggeration.

  8. I too have marveled at the different standards for the developed world versus the developing world for what constitutes hunger (as well as for other measures of disadvantage, e.g., poverty, literacy, etc). It seems that Americans expect better of their country. I have also marveled at the vitriol expressed here and elsewhere on this issue. I guess I expected better of this website. 
    You are falling prey to a variant of the ecological fallacy. You are too quick to dismiss evidence of food insecurity by claiming that those who are ?supposedly? hungry are overweight, therefore they must not be hungry. Why do you assume that the ?they? who are hungry are the same ?they? who are overweight? Lets say, for the sake of argument, that a higher proportion of the poor overeat (compared to the non-poor); does that somehow cancel out the fact that a higher proportion of the poor are also undernourished? 
    Perhaps the poor are more likely to be overweight even when you adjust for caloric intake. 
    Does the coexistence of both leblouh and hunger in countries like Mauritania likewise puzzle you? 
    There is evidence that malnutrition can cause changes in one?s metabolism, perhaps even intergenerationally through epigenetic mechanisms. (The thrifty phenotype hypothesis.) It?s preposterous to use the effects of past malnutrition to dismiss the possibility of current malnutrition, albeit one that is probably less severe. 
    The causal relationship between poverty and obesity is reciprocal. The obese are more likely to end up in poverty, even if they weren?t poor when they became obese. Yet their current poverty/obesity confluence is used dismiss the possibility of other poor people being hungry. 
    Some are confusing matters further by conflating ethnic minorities with the poor, and using the former as a proxy for the latter. The incidence of vitamin D deficiency, which is a risk factor for obesity, is higher in dark-skinned people. 
    World Bank data estimates that 1.3% of U.S. children under 5 are ?underweight? – less than the 2.3% that would be expected in a fully normal distribution. 
    If you are focusing on the poor, then at least for the sake of consistency, you should be looking at what percent of poor Americans are underweight, which may well be higher than what it is among the general U.S. population, especially given the fact that the incidence of low birthweight is higher among the poor. I suspect that BMI variance is larger in America than it is in most other countries, and that it?s even larger for low-SES Americans. 
    In any case, the fact that less than 2.3% of the population is underweight doesn?t mean that the tail isn?t fat, let alone attenuated, especially when you consider that the average BMI in America is higher. BMI isn?t normally distributed anyway, it?s positively skewed.