Food Security Junk Science

With the release of the USDA's latest report on household food security in the United States, we get another example of junk science, government largesse, and a social engineering Trojan horse.

The report claims that 14.5 percent of American households "were food insecure at least some time during the year [2012], including 5.7 percent with very low food security -- meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food."

Apparently, "children were food insecure at times during the year in 10.0 percent of households with children. These 3.9 million households were unable at times during the year to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children."

Where does this data come from? Unaudited voluntary population surveys. This means the underlying data cannot be verified and may be subject to significant bias. Indeed, the problematic unscientific subjective nature of the questions and responses is clear from the following description of the USDA's methods:

"The food security survey asked one adult respondent in each household a series of questions about experiences and behaviors of household members that indicate food insecurity, such as being unable to afford balanced meals, cutting the size of meals because of too little money for food, or being hungry because of too little money for food. The food security status of the household was assigned based on the number of food-insecure conditions reported."

Of 54,000 requested participants, "43,942 households completed the food security supplement; the remainder was unable or unwilling to do so." This is a response rate of 81%, good for a voluntary survey. But the problem lies as much with the bias in the responses as it does with the response bias introduced from those not completing the survey.

Here are the basic survey questions (eight additional questions were asked if the household had children):

1. 'We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.' Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?

2. 'The food that we bought just didn't last and we didn't have money to get more.' Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?

3. 'We couldn't afford to eat balanced meals.' Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?

4. In the last 12 months, did you or other adults in the household ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn't enough money for food?

5. (If yes to question 4) How often did this happen -- almost every month, some months but not every month, or in only 1 or 2 months?

6. In the last 12 months, did you ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn't enough money for food?

7. In the last 12 months, were you ever hungry, but didn't eat, because there wasn't enough money for food?

8. In the last 12 months, did you lose weight because there wasn't enough money for food?

9. In the last 12 months did you or other adults in your household ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food?

10. (If yes to question 9) How often did this happen -- almost every month, some months but not every month, or in only 1 or 2 months?

Garbage in, garbage out.

Take question 1. "We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more"? And how do we define worrying? Some people are chronically worried about things they shouldn't be. Others don't worry enough. How do we prove whether someone was indeed worried? There is no way of obtaining solid data that can be rationally used to construct coherent public policy when you ask your survey recipients such vague and indeterminate questions as whether or not they worry.

What about question 3? And what exactly is a balanced meal? My definition of a balanced meal may be different from yours, and what about people who have no idea (or the wrong idea) about what a properly balanced meal should look like? Moving on to question 6: "did you ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn't enough money for food"? Now we're asking individuals about their feelings? And somehow this is supposed to be scientific data that the USDA subsequently attempts to apply rigorous statistical tests to?

We could dissect all the questions in this manner (they all have fatal flaws).

Based on responses, households "are classified as food insecure if they report three or more food-insecure conditions." Why three? What is the scientific basis behind this apparently arbitrary decision? and which three conditions doesn't matter, so long as we sum to three? So we ask fundamentally flawed subjective, voluntary, and unverifiable questions, and then apply subjective criteria to interpret the meaning of the likely junk data? Sounds like a recipe for scientific disaster.

The political motivations surrounding food security become evident when we note that "food insecurity was strongly associated with income. For example, 40.9 percent of households with incomes below the official poverty line were food insecure, compared with 6.8 percent of those with incomes above 185 percent of the poverty line."

Herein lies the key. Survey recipients know that their answers will be used to formulate public policies. Thus, low-income individuals will feel the psychological pull to indicate they have greater food insecurity than they actually do in an attempt to shift public policy in favor of their receiving additional financial assistance from various government programs. High income individuals will not feel this pull as strongly, since they will recognize that any additional government programs will not be a net benefit to them -- but rather a cost.

In other words, low-income households receive more in government services than they pay in taxes, which is why they are more likely to favor enhanced or more government programs, and thereby more likely to skew public polling data in an attempt to achieve these objectives. These types of surveys are like asking employees the following question: "do you make enough money?" Who would answer no?

If you are thinking this emphasis on food security is probably part of a government plan to justify and increase reliance on domestic food and nutrition assistance programs, you're probably right. Watch the government manufacture a socio-economic problem, and then watch the same government propose various programs to solve the "problem." Marketing 101.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly the Food Stamp Program) is now being administered to 46 million individuals (15% of the entire U.S. population) at an annual cost of $78 billion and rising. This single "nutrition assistance program" already consumes 2.2% of the entire federal government expenditures! The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program averages 9 million participants per month, for a total 2012 appropriation of over $6.6 billion. Add to this the National School Lunch Program (NSLP; serving about 32 million children per day with annual expenditures of greater than $11 billion), and these three programs (SNAP, WIC, and NSLP) consume almost 3% of the federal budget.

Of course, the school lunch program is using taxpayer dollars so wisely, such as debating whether ketchup and pizza are vegetables. Exhibit A as to why we need less government intervention in our lives. And with obesity rates at frighteningly high levels, especially among the poor, it appears we have too much food security, not too little.

According to the USDA, "an estimated 51.8 percent of households that received SNAP benefits were food insecure, as were 47.3 percent of households that received free or reduced-cost school lunches, and 39.5 percent of those that received WIC benefits," and "about 59 percent of food-insecure households reported receiving assistance from one or more of the three largest Federal food and nutrition assistance programs." So do we think these households -- relying on these programs -- are likely going to answer surveys indicating they actually do have food security, thereby undermining the rationale for the government programs they benefit from? I thought not.

Overall, self-reporting of whether or not financial and/or food needs/desires are being met is inherently unreliable, and as such, all conclusions based on this data are equally unreliable. If one household lives in housing that is beyond their financial means, drives automobiles that are too expensive for their income class, spends too much on entertainment, and makes poor food choices, etc., that could lead to food insecurity. But in such cases, the problem is not structural food insecurity, it is wasteful and incorrectly prioritized spending within the household.

The USDA study does not appear to address these fatal flaws at all. In order to ensure reliable data, the study would have needed to rigorously audit the full financial situation of each household, and then make a determination of whether or not food insecurity exists by comparing the results to a set of objectively constructed and transparent criteria. The first requirement is effectively impossible for any large sample size (since the audit would need proof of actual household spending patterns, not simply what people claim they spend their money on). The second requirement would be deeply contentious -- what would be the objective criteria and who would determine them, and how?

Dr. Sierra Rayne writes regularly on environment, energy, and national security topics. He can be found on Twitter at @rayne_sierra.

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