What It Means to Go Hungry

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Since Thanksgiving is the day we count our blessings instead of our carbs, it is a ripe moment to talk about hunger.

Or perhaps, to talk about how we talk about hunger.

When the government released its annual survey on Household Food Security in the United States last week, as it has every year since 1995, there was for the first time a word missing — a very important word. The report stated that about 35 million Americans sometimes don't always know where their next meal will come from, and a third of those sometimes experience "very low food security." But as of this year, the word "hunger" no longer applies.

That curious change in language, which the Washington Post denounced as "linguistic airbrushing," inspired some poverty activists to charge officials with trying to cover up the problem. "We're very concerned about 'hunger' disappearing," said Ross Fraser of America's Second Harvest, the country's largest hunger-relief charity. "How do you talk about hunger if the government isn't providing you with data about hunger?"

It was easy to suspect a conspiracy, that someone in the government who didn't like the fact that every year for the last five the hunger statistics had gotten worse had pushed the USDA to dilute the bad news somehow. (Some Democrats suggested that the report was delayed until after the election; the department responded that the release schedule has always been a bit erratic and this year's was set months ago.) But behind the predictable fight was a practical challenge: How should we talk about hunger in America in a way that both accurately describes the problem and pushes people to solve it.

The dehydrated phrase "food insecurity," in fact, has been the accepted language of aid workers and the U.N. and government studies for years. Until now, Americans who had to scramble to put food on the table but somehow always managed, with the help maybe of a food bank or soup kitchen, were said to experience "food insecurity without hunger." There are 12.6 million such households; about 4.4 million families actually had to reduce or skip meals altogether because they ran out of money to buy food. They used to be called "food insecure with hunger." Now they are described as experiencing "very low food security."

The shift in terminology, which inspired such a furor, came about as bureaucratic translations so often do: slowly, earnestly, and all but blindly when it came to the larger meaning. "It seems that 'hungry' means different things to different people," explains Mark Nord, one of the principal authors of the USDA report. Some anti-hunger activists said that any household that had to struggle to keep food on the table should be classified as hungry; others countered that this diminished the power of the term, and that it should refer only to the more severe cases. So about three years ago the Agriculture Department asked experts at the National Academies of Science to weigh in, and their committee agreed that "hunger" should be reserved for cases when persistent food insecurity results in "prolonged, involuntary lack of food," and the result is "discomfort, illness, weakness or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation."

But that pain was not what the USDA was measuring — researchers were not going out and interviewing poor or homeless people about how they felt when they'd gone for a day without eating. What they could quantify was exactly how often people said that "We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more," and how often they had cut the size of meals or skip them all together. As a result, we now get a study that paints an even more scientifically accurate portrait of an even more deeply divided country. The Dow is as plump as its ever been, and 4 million families skip meals because they sometimes have no choice.

So does the phrasing matter, or do the facts speak for themselves?

The problem is that by making the language more precise the message becomes less clear. It is true that another person's hunger is impossible to measure. But sometimes a word's power is independent of its precision. Talking about poor people's hunger binds us to them; we can at least sense their suffering because we have felt it ourselves, however briefly. Talking about their "very low food security" pushes them away at a safe clinical distance, all but pinning them on a spreadsheet. It may describe their predicament accurately, but it sterilizes it at the same time. That's why Orwell warned that "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." "It's like the government announcing it would no longer talk about 'uninsured people', but 'people with reduced health care access,'" says Jim Weill, President of the Food Research and Action Center. "It's replacing a phrase which has emotional punch for people with one that's drained of any power."

Nord himself acknowledges the weight of the word. "Those who work closest with us and know firsthand what hunger is feel that this problem may be lost sight of if the USDA is not using this word to describe the condition," he says. And he pauses for a long time. "I wear a lot of hats," he says. Back when he worked outside of government, with the local homeless and in the local community café, he might have expressed a personal opinion. But now, "I'm a government number cruncher." And the best numbers he has are the ones that describe how poor people behave, not how they feel: how often a parent skips a meal so a child has enough to eat, how often they can't afford to eat a balanced meal, how many ate less, lost weight, went for a full day without eating sometimes.

But there's also a need for some consensus on what hunger is, what to call it, how to measure its severity and translate those findings into information, which in turn can shape the policy to try to remedy the problem. All of that type of research, which the National Academies also endorsed, would have to be sanctioned by someone much higher up the food chain.

In the meantime, in churches and soup kitchens and community centers around the country, a great many people will spend at least part of Thanksgiving day, like every other day, feeding hungry people. Jesus didn't teach his followers to pray that God would "give us this day our daily food security." He did say "I was hungry, and you fed me." If the problem is that the current means of measurement don't capture the full experience of hunger in the United States in the 21st century, that argues for better measurements and better solutions — not weaker words.