Hunger in New York State

By Mangum, Cynthia | Human Ecology Forum, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Hunger in New York State

Mangum, Cynthia, Human Ecology Forum

Many New York State households don't have enough food. The cause is not always poverty. High expenses, illness, disability, or unemployment can diminish a family's food supply as well. Professor Christine Olson believes the solution is a combination of public policy changes, community involvement, and most importantly, adequate education and technical training for all citizens.

Well-fed Americans typically think of hunger as a foreign affliction, defined by the words emaciation, starvation, malnutrition, even death. Although these terms aptly describe the most extreme forms of hunger, they do not tell the whole story, especially the American version.

In reality, hunger exists in varying degrees along a continuum. Extreme hunger is characterized by total and prolonged food deprivation. Sporadic hunger, the most prevalent form of hunger in the United States, occupies the opposite end of the continuum and is characterized by an uncertain food supply.

Twelve percent of people in the United States don't have access to sufficient food on a regular basis, and members of at least 800,000 households in New York State alone are sometimes or often hungry. The cumulative effects of hunger seriously affect the health of these food-deprived Americans, but they seldom lead to emaciation or death. Unlike the shocking, highly publicized hunger experienced in developing and war-torn nations, sporadic hunger is often overlooked or ignored because it has been neither easy to quantify nor quite so visible.

"The image in most people's minds when they think of hunger is starving children in Africa with skinny limbs and bloated bellies, and in the United States people don't see children with those characteristics," says Christine Olson, professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and recently named the first Hazel E. Reed Human Ecology Extension Professorship in Family Policy. "Our hunger isn't like the hunger in Africa and many of the developing parts of the world that have famine and war."

For over a decade Olson and her colleagues have carefully examined the different face of hunger as it exists in food-rich countries like the United States, exploring methods to quantify it - and developing the terminology to name and discuss it. Their 1987 study of 32 low-income single mothers in New York State produced some startling and sobering findings.

"These women talked about knowing that their household food supply was going to run out and there wasn't going to be enough food in the house to feed the family for the whole month," Olson recalls. "They talked about coping strategies such as cutting down on the size of meals, skipping meals themselves, and sending the children to grandma's or a friend's at mealtime so they knew the child would be fed."

A unique name and an explicit definition for this sporadic hunger evolved from the initial study, and a food insecurity and hunger scale by which it can be consistently measured began to take shape. The name food insecurity, already used in international nutrition circles to describe food supplies on a national scale, was chosen instead of hunger to describe the uncertain food situation on a household scale in America because, according to Olson, hunger typically refers to extreme and prolonged food deprivation. Olson and her team defined 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."

Despite the conclusive findings of this and many other studies and the testimony of bare food pantry shelves, many New Yorkers still don't believe hunger is a problem here, partially because of images the word hunger invokes, and also because of the high obesity rates observed in the United States. Indeed, the documented rates of obesity are higher in low-income populations than in middle- and upper-income populations. …

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