Hungry for Program Expansion

May 13, 2008

Yesterday I blogged about a Washington Post column by Shankar Vedantam that began: “About 35 million Americans regularly go hungry each year, according to federal statistics.” I looked up the federal data, and the real number appears to be about 9 million.

I queried the Post about the discrepancy, and Shankar kindly pointed me to this study produced by academic health scholars and the Sodexho Foundation. (I appreciate the prompt replies by both Shankar and the Post’s ombudsman).

The Sodexho study is a classic example of program advocates apparently inflating the size of a problem in order to prompt “Congress to expand existing programs,” as it proposes. I am not a health specialist, but it seems to me that Sodexho using 35 million for the number of Americans going hungry is a huge exaggeration. 

On page 10 and 11 of the Sodexho study, the authors admit that they are including both those people who occasionally go hungry and those who are “food insecure,” which is a far larger group. As I noted yesterday, the USDA puts the narrower group (those sometimes going hungry) at only about 9 million people.

While the Sodexho authors admit that they are using the broader group, they do not tell readers how vastly narrower the actual hunger group is. (The table on page 11 only shows the broader measure).

Also, the authors use “hunger” in the title, and they frequently claim that they are measuring the “economic cost of hunger.” On page 13 and 21, they say that 35 million people do not “get enough to eat.” But again, not getting enough to eat best describes 9 million people, not 35 million.

The Sodexho study takes the 35 million and calculates a cost of hunger in the United States of $90 billion. Obviously, the cost would be much less if the narrower and more accurate definition of hunger were used. 

To top it off, the authors of the study (page 21) have the chutzpah to claim that they are being “conservative” in their approach.

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