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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

MoveOn.org: Starved for Facts

Would you believe that one in six Americans is "going hungry"?

You shouldn’t, because it’s not true.

Nevertheless, the liberal group MoveOn.org claimed something close to that in an end-of-the-year appeal for donations to Feeding America, the national anti-hunger charity. MoveOn’s message said: "This winter, a record 49 million Americans are going hungry because of the economy." (To read the whole fundraising appeal, click the link below.)

Dear MoveOn member,

"I’m sure we’re going to run out of food today, before we serve all the people that are in line."
That’s Mary-Sharon Howland, director of a food bank near New Orleans.1 But the same problem is plaguing food banks and soup kitchens across America. This winter, a record 49 million Americans are going hungry because of the economy.2

Our country needs change that gets to the root of the problem, but we also need to help people survive the immediate crisis.

Here’s a way to help: Feeding America is the nation’s leading network of food banks—including one near you, Capital Area Food Bank. For every $1 you donate, Feeding America can help provide 7 meals to men, women, and children facing hunger in our country.

Please contribute to Feeding America as generously as you can. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation before the end of the year:

As progressives, we share a core belief that we’re all in this together. We’ll continue to fight for lasting change—and help each other weather this economic downturn.

Thanks for all you do, and happy New Year!

–Justin, Adam, Amy, Anna, Annie, Carrie, Christopher, Daniel, Danielle, Eli, Emily, Gail, Ian, Ilya, Ilyse, Joan, Jodeen, Kat, Keauna, Laura, Lenore, Marika, Matt, Matthew, Melanie, Michael, Nita, Noah, Peter, Scott, Stephen, Steven, Susannah, Tim, and Wes

1. "Kenner Food Bank may have to turn away needy," WWLTV Eyewitness News (Louisiana), December 23, 2009

2. "Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High," The New York Times, November 16, 2009

Now, 49 million would be a lot of hungry people. Consider first that the total U.S. population is just over 308 million. Divide 49 million into that, and it works out to be one in 6.3 Americans. We agree that hunger is a real and serious problem, but could things be that bad? Where is MoveOn getting such a figure?

Helpfully, MoveOn’s message provides a footnoted citation to a Nov. 16 New York Times article carrying the headline "Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High." It’s a gloomy story that supports MoveOn’s claim that the 49 million number is a "record" of sorts, even though the government’s records only go back to 1995. But the story does not say that 49 million "are going hungry." To the contrary, the Times reported that two-thirds of the 49 million "typically had enough to eat," while the other one-third had skipped meals, cut the size of their portions or otherwise done without food "at some point in the year" of 2008. Hence, the claim that 49 million are "going hungry" at any given time, or even for one day during the year, is very far from the truth.

The official Agriculture Department report on which the Times story is based found that 49.1 million Americans were "food insecure" at least some of the time during 2008. The report said that most of those, despite problems getting food, "typically have reported few, if any, indications of reduced food intake." But 17.3 million of them were reported to have "very low" food security. (See Table 1A on page 6.) That "very low" category includes people experiencing varying degrees of hunger. The report says 27 percent of the households in that category reported that an adult went an entire day without food at least once during the year, and nearly half (47 percent) of respondents reported losing weight because of having too little money to buy food, while others skipped a meal or cut down on portions at times. Still, even "very low" food security is not the same thing as being hungry on any given day, as the report cautions its readers:

USDA Report: [I]t is important to keep in mind that households were classified as having low or very low food security if they experienced the condition at any time during the previous 12 months. The prevalence of these conditions on any given day is far below the corresponding annual prevalence. For example, the prevalence of very low food security on an average day during the 30-day period prior to the December 2008 survey is estimated to have been between 0.9 and 1.2 percent of households.

In other words, the available evidence shows that the number of Americans who were even somewhat hungry on any given day was around one in 100 — far from the one in six that MoveOn.org claimed.

The fact that MoveOn.org is vastly overstating the case shouldn’t discourage anyone from giving to Feeding America. In fact, this author is a regular donor to that hunger-relief charity. Indeed, food banks and soup kitchens keep many persons from falling into the "very low" food security category.

The hunger problem is real and may be somewhat worse than the Agriculture Department report shows, since it is based on a survey of households and, therefore, does not include the homeless. Also, the unemployment rate has risen sharply since the survey was conducted, up from 6.8 percent in November 2008 to 10 percent in November of last year, according to the most recent official report. So the problem may well be worse this winter than it was a year ago.

The problem is bad enough. There’s no need to exaggerate and misrepresent the numbers.