Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
Measuring hunger, or food insufficiency, is a subjective process at best. Any measurement of hunger based on self-report will by definition represent a range of actual food intakes characterized as sufficient or insufficient based on a subjective set of criteria. Nonetheless, data from a number of different sources, including both advocacy and federal surveys, have consistently shown that a portion of the U.S. population including millions of children experiences food insufficiency. The USDA surveys show that rates of food insufficiency have been relatively constant over time and are high among the poor, the population most expected to have difficulties. It appears that recently in the United States two million to four million children (age not greater than 12 years) experienced food insufficiency annually and that more than one million youths (13 to 19 years old) also faced food insufficiency, despite a number of federal programs designed to alleviate the problem.
Development of these federal feeding programs may be traced in part to the important role advocacy activities and organizations have played in motivating public policy to address hunger in America. Media attention generated by the report on hunger in the South by the Field Foundation's Physicians' Task Force on Hunger in America created sufficient concern in the 1960s that Congress required the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to survey hunger and malnutrition. The resulting federal Ten-State Nutrition Survey showed that hunger was enough of a problem—particularly for childbearing women, infants, and young children—that the WIC program was initiated to provide nutrient-rich foods to the most nutrient-deprived and at-risk members of that segment of the population. And, despite the 1979 declaration of the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Nutrition that hunger had been defeated, the House of Representatives established the Select Committee on Hunger in 1984, in part because of media stories of hardship in the early 1980s and a report issued in 1983 by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) on infant mortality rates (with poor prenatal maternal nutrition as one contributing factor), which returned hunger to the headlines.1,23
In addition to focusing attention on hunger as an issue worthy of public attention, the advocacy organization FRAC may be credited with pioneering work on the measurement of hunger for policy purposes. FRAC's work has led in part to the current collaborative effort of several government agencies (including the USDA's Food and Consumer Service, the DHHS's National Center for Health Statistics, and the Bureau of the Census) on the Food Security Measurement Study. One product of this interagency effort is a state-of-the-art hunger survey component included once each year in the Bureau of the Census's monthly Current Population Survey, first tested in April 1995 and next scheduled for April 1997. This new survey component embodies much of the past decade of progress by both public and private researchers in refining the science of hunger measurement and raises hopes that meaningful periodic estimates of hunger and related measures of food insecurity nationwide may become available to policymakers.
Complementary and often cooperative efforts in the private and public sectors have produced visible progress in our ability to understand hunger as a social problem. Although federal food programs do not seem to have eradicated the problem of hunger for children, they have addressed the issue on a large scale, which should give hope to those who work to document and call attention to childhood hunger.