Are people really going hungry in America? Yes, claimed the online headline over reporter Jason DeParle's Tuesday story on an Agriculture Department survey: "Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High." So did the front-page teaser headline in the print edition: "Numbers Soar on U.S. Hunger."
The actual print edition story featured a more accurate, less emotional headline: "49 Million Americans Report a Lack of Food." But the survey DeParle was reporting on actually measured something even vaguer: "food insecurity," a catch-all term that could mean something as amorphous as someone worrying about obtaining food in the future.
As DeParle admitted, the Agriculture Department doesn't even use the term "hunger" in its survey. That overstatement comes courtesy of President Obama - and Times headline writers.
The number of Americans who lived in households that lacked consistent access to adequate food soared last year, to 49 million, the highest since the government began tracking what it calls "food insecurity" 14 years ago, the Department of Agriculture reported Monday.
The increase, of 13 million Americans, was much larger than even the most pessimistic observers of hunger trends had expected and cast an alarming light on the daily hardships caused by the recession's punishing effect on jobs and wages.
About a third of these struggling households had what the researchers called "very low food security," meaning lack of money forced members to skip meals, cut portions or otherwise forgo food at some point in the year.
The other two-thirds typically had enough to eat, but only by eating cheaper or less varied foods, relying on government aid like food stamps, or visiting food pantries and soup kitchens.
The ungainly phrase "food insecurity" stems from years of political and academic wrangling over how to measure adequate access to food. In the 1980s, when officials of the Reagan administration denied there was hunger in the United States, the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington advocacy group, began a survey that concluded otherwise. Over time, Congress had the Agriculture Department oversee a similar survey, which the Census Bureau administers.
Though researchers at the Agriculture Department do not use the word "hunger," Mr. Obama did. "Hunger rose significantly last year," he said.
While the left-wing Food Research and Action Center was not labeled by DeParle, he found "conservatives" attacking the survey:
Some conservatives have attacked the survey's methodology, saying it is hard to define what it measures. The 18-item questionnaire asks about skipped meals and hunger pangs, but also whether people had worries about getting food. It ranks the severity of their condition by the number of answers that indicate a problem.
"Very few of these people are hungry," said Robert Rector, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "When they lose jobs, they constrain the kind of food they buy. That is regrettable, but it's a far cry from a hunger crisis."
DeParle, it should be remembered, was an outspoken (and mistaken) opponent of Clinton's welfare reform. In a July 1996 story he lamented that President Clinton, "will be seeking re-election with a bill that begrudges poor infants their Pampers..."
Coincidentally, DeParle's wife, Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the Obama Administration's Office of Health Reform, is featured favorably in a brief health-care story six pages over by Reed Abelson, "Taking On an Industry, adapted from this blog post.