A Measure of Hunger

By Dailey, Daisy Z. | Human Ecology Forum, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview
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A Measure of Hunger

Dailey, Daisy Z., Human Ecology Forum

Researchers in the Division of Nutritional Sciences have worked since the mid-80s to define hunger and measure the extent of it. Using the term "food insecurity" to talk about hunger in this country, they have devised a system for quantifying it. The next step is to identify areas in which food problems exist so that communities can act to solve them.

In the mid-1980s, as major U.S. cities were noting increases in homelessness, empty community food pantries, and overwhelmed soup kitchens, the President's Task Force on Food Assistance was unable to substantiate allegations of hunger because they had no way to measure the extent of the problem. Christine Olson, professor of nutritional sciences, and Kathy Radimer, then a graduate student, set out to develop measures of hunger in the United States.

Since then Olson has been working to pinpoint the slippery problem of lack of food in this country. This has meant creating terms to talk about the problem, studying groups of people affected by it, and seeking solutions.

Poverty is one of the major risk factors responsible for hunger in this country, says Olson, who recently returned from a sabbatical leave spent at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Recent Census Bureau statistics show that about 38.1 million people suffer from poverty in the United States. Yet it is often difficult to convince people that hunger exists.

Those most likely to suffer from hunger in the United States are women and children - usually single mothers and the families they support - and the elderly. And while starvation does not occur in the United States on the scale that it does in still-developing countries, hunger does exist.

"Women and children are over-represented in the poverty population. They are at highest risk for being poor, and therefore at greatest risk of hunger," says Olson.

Olson and other researchers in the Division of Nutritional Sciences have worked since the mid-80s to both define hunger and discover ways to measure it. Rather than call the problem "hunger," which might imply hunger on the scale of less-developed countries, Olson and her colleagues chose the term "food insecurity." Based on Radimer's original research, they define food insecurity as "the inability to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so."

The researchers found that food insecurity takes place on a continuum, progressing from uncertainty and anxiety about food in the household, to affecting what and how the adults in the household eat, to the extreme condition of children going hungry. To quantify food insecurity, they developed a measurement tool that can be applied to various groups.

Working with populations of women and children in upstate New York, Olson and her colleagues conducted two studies, one in 1987 and one in 1993. The 1987 study, conducted with Radimer, provided an initial definition of food insecurity and delineated the conceptual framework for the nature of food problems. In that study thirty-two women who had been hungry or near hunger at some time in their lives were interviewed extensively. The researchers found that the women experienced hunger in two ways, which they termed narrow and broad. The narrow concept referred to not having enough food and going without food, often for several days. The broad concept included problems maintaining the household food supply, inadequate diets, and how the women and children felt about their situation.

Olson and Radimer also found that the way food insecurity was experienced by the women and children as individuals differed from the way it was experienced on a household level. They found both experiences had four components - quantitative, qualitative, psychological, and social:

* The quantitative component of food insecurity for individuals means insufficient intake; for households, it means food depletion, or running out of food.

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