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Originally published Thursday, November 16, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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U.S. agency changes "hunger" to "very low food security"

The U.S. government has vowed that Americans will never be hungry again. But they may experience "very low food security. " Every year, the...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has vowed that Americans will never be hungry again. But they may experience "very low food security."

Every year, the Agriculture Department issues a report that measures Americans' access to food, and it has consistently used the word "hunger" in connection with those who can least afford to put food on the table. But not this year.

Mark Nord, the lead author of the report, said "hunger" is "not a scientifically accurate term for the specific phenomenon being measured in the food security survey." Nord, an Agriculture Department sociologist, said, "We don't have a measure of that condition."

The department said that 12 percent of Americans — 35 million people — could not put food on the table at least part of last year. Eleven million of them reported going hungry at times. Beginning this year, the Agriculture Department has determined "very low food security" to be a more scientifically palatable description for that group.

The United States has set a goal of reducing the proportion of food-insecure households to 6 percent or less by 2010, or half the 1995 level, but it has proved difficult. The number of hungry Americans has risen over the past five years, and last year, the share of food-insecure households stood at 11 percent.

Less vexing has been the effort to fix the way hunger is described. Three years ago, the department asked the Committee on National Statistics of the National Academies "to ensure that the measurement methods USDA uses to assess households' access — or lack of access — to adequate food and the language used to describe those conditions are conceptually and operationally sound."

The panel suggested that the Agriculture Department scrap the word "hunger," which "should refer to a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation."

To measure hunger, the department determined, the government would have to ask individual people whether "lack of eating led to these more severe conditions," as opposed to asking who can afford to keep food in the house, Nord said.

It is not likely that Agriculture Department economists will tackle measuring individual hunger. "Hunger is clearly an important issue," Nord said. "But lacking a widespread consensus on what the word 'hunger' should refer to, it's difficult for research to shed meaningful light on it."

Anti-hunger advocates say the new words sugarcoat a national shame. "The proposal to remove the word 'hunger' from our official reports is a huge disservice to the millions of Americans who struggle daily to feed themselves and their families," said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, an anti-hunger advocacy group.

"We ... cannot hide the reality of hunger among our citizens."

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