How Can Americans Be Both Obese and Starving?

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My grandmother survived the Holodomor, a purposeful man-made famine orchestrated by Joseph Stalin against the people of Ukraine. Every morning, in the small city of Druzhkivka, she would wake up to check on her family members to see if any of them had died during the night. Starvation ultimately took the lives of 3 to 7 million Ukrainians.

Given my family's personal experience with mass starvation, I was surprised to hear Joel Berg, a food policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, say this on MSNBC:

I say the reason [the United States is] not Somalia or Haiti or North Korea is the [food stamp] program's working... The reason we don't have mass starvation is this program is helping tens of millions of American families survive.
I am a big proponent of smacking people in the face with reality. (After all, this is a science site, where we talk about uncomfortable things like penis transplants and the taste of human flesh.) Many Americans, apparently Joel Berg included, are not terribly familiar with life beyond the borders of the United States. So, for a reality check, below are some incredibly disturbing photographs of starving children from Somalia and North Korea.

famineSlide1.jpgLet these photos sear into your mind. This is what real starvation looks like. Mr. Berg's claim that an America without food stamps would look like this is a hyperbole to end all hyperboles.

Setting aside Mr. Berg's absurd analogy, does anything in his statement resemble the truth? Yes, sort of. But, as you might expect, it's also somewhat misleading.

The truth of the matter is Americans are fat and getting fatter. As late as 1990, not a single U.S. state had an obesity rate above 15%*. In 2010, merely 20 years later, a dozen states have an obesity rate over 30%. And most shockingly, 69.2% of Americans age 20 or over are obese or overweight.

So that leads to a rather obvious contradiction: How can Americans be both obese and on the verge of starvation?

The answer is simple: Very few, if any, Americans are literally starving. Instead, a considerable number of Americans live in "food insecure households." And progressive activists like Mr. Berg dishonestly use the word "starvation" to refer to what would happen to these people if there were no food stamps.

What is a food insecure household? The USDA determines if a household is "food insecure" based on the responses to a survey (PDF, page 3) which asks questions like:
"We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more." Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
Another example question:
In the last 12 months, did you ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn't enough money for food? (Yes/No)
Using this method, the USDA determined that 17.9 million households (14.9%) were food insecure in 2011. So, that's how Mr. Berg comes up with the claim that mass starvation would occur if there were no food stamps.

Of course, this absurd conclusion ignores two very relevant points: First, Americans are very generous people, possibly the most generous in the world. It is very difficult to imagine an America where churches and charities ignore starving people in the streets. Second, just because a household is "food insecure" doesn't mean that it struggles to buy food every day. In fact, households classified as having "very low food security" have trouble buying food a few times per month for 7 months out of the year. In other words, they're eating most of the time.

Nobody wants to see a person, particularly a child, go hungry -- even for a day. But, to characterize this as potential "mass starvation" is really inconsiderate of the millions of people in the world who are actually starving. Hyperbole only serves to downplay the seriousness of global poverty and starvation in the developing world.

Having said that, it is true that some Americans are very poor and should be receiving food stamps. 34.5% of low-income households (income less than 185 percent of the poverty line) were food insecure (PDF, page 10). While they may not exactly be facing Somalia-like starvation conditions, very few would argue against food assistance for these Americans.

By digging deeper into the numbers, however, one can find some very odd data. For instance, 7% of households with incomes above 185 percent of the poverty line were also food insecure (PDF, page 10). In 2011, the federal poverty line for a family of four was $22,811 (PDF, page 8), which means that 7% of families of four making at least $42,200 per year were considered food insecure. To be sure, $42K per year isn't wealthy; but these Americans shouldn't even be close to starving. One must wonder what role irresponsibility plays in whether or not a household is "food insecure."

i_beat_anorexia.jpgSo, back to our original question: How can Americans be both obese and starving? Well, if by "starving" we actually mean "food insecure" and/or "improperly nourished," then the answer becomes a little clearer. There is a link between poverty and obesity. Most likely, this is because people in poverty eat cheap, unhealthy food. This is how poorly fed people can become obese.

However, it should be noted that cheap, healthy food is also available. Sure, poor people can't afford scientifically dubious organic produce

from Whole Foods, but, they can afford healthy food from regular grocery stores

and outlets. In fact, one website compiled a list of 55 healthy foods that can

be found for less than $1 per pound.

The reality in America is that nobody is "starving," at least not in the way most people understand the meaning of the word. Definitely, some people need food assistance and proper nourishment, but grossly exaggerating the problem, as Mr. Berg has, helps nobody in the long run.   

*Note: Only 44 states reported data on obesity in 1990, but it is unlikely that obesity rates were different in the remaining 6 states.

(Images: AP, Express, Ebaumsworld)

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