Very few Americans going to bed hungry

Last week, an Agriculture Department study showed that 16.4 million U.S. households containing 49.1 million people experienced "food insecurity" in 2008, up from 12.2 million households containing 36.2 million people in 2007. Fortunately, Congress has already addressed some of the problem with a significant food-stamp boost in the stimulus package adopted in February.

But is "hunger" widespread in America? Headlines about the study ("49 million Americans report a lack of food," declared The New York Times) implied that famine stalks the land. The stories were salted with terms such as "alarming" and "dramatic." The data, however, don't support this dire portrayal.

The USDA report is based on a survey of 44,000 households.

They were asked whether, and how, a lack of funds affected their eating habits. The first question was whether the respondent had ever "worried" about running out of food in the previous 12 months -- not actually run out of food, just worried about it. A "yes" answer counts as "food insecurity."

Adults were asked if they ever lost weight due to a lack of food money -- but not how much weight or what they weighed before. In theory, a 300-pound man who lost a pound could count as "food-insecure."

The least severe forms of "insecurity" were the most commonly reported. "Worry," with 19.7 percent of households, topped the list, followed by running out of food before money came in to buy more (15.3 percent). In neither instance did respondents actually eat less than usual.

Only about a third of the 16.4 million "food-insecure" households reported that any member experienced even a brief reduction in actual food consumption. Only 0.1 percent of children went without food for a whole day in 2008. This was actually down from 0.2 percent in 2007.

Is it "alarming" that 99.9 percent of American children ate at least something every day despite the worst economic downturn since the Depression? Or is it a tribute to American abundance, and to the safety net, public and private?

In fact, 2008 was the best year in eight decades for food affordability, according to the USDA. It took 5.6 percent of income to feed an average family of four. Food is so readily available that, on the very day that the USDA issued its report, health policy expert Kenneth Thorpe of Emory University in Atlanta reported that, if present trends continue, 43 percent of Americans will be obese by 2018.