You probably saw some of those headlines about the increasing number of babies and small children “going hungry” in the United States these days–presumably because of welfare reform and the 2006 Bush budget that aims to cut welfare programs even more drastically.

Well, as Slate columnist Mickey Kaus points out, the “hunger” stuff is pure hype. What the news stories are talking about isn’t hunger–in the sense of having an inadequate amount to eat–but a brand-new category called “food insecurity” that has been readily adopted by the welfare lobby and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Here is how the Food Research and Action Center defines the term:

“Food security is a term used to describe what our nation should be seeking for all its people — assured access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life, with no need for recourse to emergency food sources or other extraordinary coping behaviors to meet basic food needs….Food insecurity refers to the lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources.”

In other words, “food insecurity” doesn’t actually mean being hungry. It means being poor. 

The Food Research and Action center reports:

“Since 1999, food insecurity has increased by 2.1 million households, including 1.1 million households with children. In 2003, 36.3 million people lived in households experiencing food insecurity, compared to 33.6 million in 2001 and 31 million in 1999.”

One might suspect that the rise in “food insecurity” has something to do with the rise in immigration to the U.S., for new immigrants typically are on our society’s lowest rung. Be that as it may, Mickey points out, after surveying the full report:

“The number of children who actually skipped meals in 2003 was .4 percent, according to the survey–down from .6 percent in 2000.”
The problem, as Mickey says, isn’t starving children but malnourished children, kids raised on junk food because their mothers can’t be bothered to feed them decent meals. In other words, the problem is parental irresponsibility, not inadequate food. As a story by the Agence France Press notes:

“Paradoxically, malnutrition is not always due to lack of food — rather to the quality of the food being consumed.

“‘People often ask me how many children go to bed hungry. The answer is the parents work very hard so they don’t go to bed feeling hungry. The parents try to fill the baby up with french fries and soda pop,’ said [Boston University pediatrics professor Deborah] Frank.

“In some families, eating junk food will mean one child is obese while the other is underweight, said [Baltimore pediatrician Maureen] Black. “The first will eat junk food and nothing else, the second will eat junk food and everything else.”
The Agence France Press story indulges in the canard that nutritious food is too costly for the poor to afford:

“In some areas, green vegetables and fruit are impossible to buy — even in a can, because there may be no supermarket. Moreover, such items are costly.”

This is bunk. My own neighborhood is blighted by square block after square block of housing projects, but the Safeway that serves us carries a dazzling variety of cheap fresh produce, including heaps of fruit and mountains of the leafy greens that are a nutritious staple of the traditional African-American diet. In another aisle you can buy big sacks of rice and beans and boxes of pasta for next to nothing. Chicken is often on special at 59 cents a pound, hamburger meat at $2. It’s junk food that’s expensive. Immigrants and–at least in the past, poor African-Americans–have known how to feed their families nutritiously on tight budgets even when holding down multiple jobs. But today’s welfare-based culture of poverty seems to know only how to stuff kids with overpriced French fries, or let them fend for themselves at the fast-food outlet.  

Mickey thinks that all this talk of childhood “hunger” instead of the real problem–parental irresponsibility–is another of those liberal attempts to win sympathy for welfare recipients that is likely to backfire in the long run:

“Like talking about ‘kids,’ talking about ‘hunger’ scores well in polls but avoids the complicated reality of poverty. Antipoverty activists defended the welfare system for decades by talking about ‘kids’ and ignoring the problem of subsidizing single-motherhood. What all that ‘kids’ talk got them was welfare reform and a GOP Congress. I think focusing deceptively on ‘hunger’ is a similarly misguided strategy, even on liberals’ own terms (i.e., the truth would encourage more government antipoverty expenditures).”