With one brilliant decision, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has wiped out hunger in America. In the eyes of the USDA, folks are no longer "hungry." The solution was so simple that people should have thought about it generations ago.
It has been obvious for decades that the good people at the USDA, tens of thousands of them, have too much time on their hands. But few things have brought that home more forcefully than the decision to strike the word "hunger" from its annual report on the state of . . . well . . . "food security" in the nation. That’s right. The feel-good euphemism police have struck down another age-old description used to portray the obvious in plain English.
First there were no long those who are deaf or blind or short or crippled. They are now "hearing or sight impaired" and "height disadvantaged," and "physically restricted." In my case, it is "hair deprived," so as not to hurt my feelings as used to happen when someone would point out, "Hey, do you know you’re getting bald?"
Now we are being told by a government agency that may have one employee for every family farm left in America that 35 million of our fellow citizens who have difficulty finding daily sustenance are not really hungry but severely deficient in their ability to secure food. In fact, 11 million of these citizens have "very low food security." In other words these people are not only hungry, they may be on the verge of starvation — a description for which apparently no euphemism yet has been discovered (but give them time).
This leads us to ask once again if this isn’t enough reason to reassess not only the structure of this department but its worth. More importantly, it has led 64 members of the U.S. House to pose a series of penetrating questions to the good geniuses who prepared the annual report on Americans’ access to their daily bread and then went off to enjoy their Thanksgiving turkeys.
The interrogatory prepared by Rep. Joe Baca, a California Democrat, asked among other things:
— "Before making the decision to replace the term ‘hunger’ with ‘very low food security,’ did USDA consider the possibility that this decision might influence key nutrition policy debates, media perception and or philanthropic efforts?
— ". . . Who did the department speak with? Were any legislators, policy experts or anti-hunger advocates involved in this decision? And if these parties were consulted, what were their recommendations?"
Hold on, congressman. You didn’t ask whether any of the vast number of the undernourished had been consulted about whether they were actually hungry or just exercising "poor security" over the food they did have. If it is just a matter of that, perhaps we should issue them all an AK-47 assault rifle if they haven’t been given one already by the National Rifle Association and told to go hunting. OK, that may be a little silly, but considering the inanity of this entire matter the question seem appropriate enough.
The lead author of the report, a sociologist named Mark Nord, has been quoted as explaining that a panel of scientists found that "hunger" is not a quantifiable term. Oh, really? There are a lot of little kids in this country who would disagree vehemently, Mr. Nord. Actually, it may be the only quantifiable thing in their lives, the only thing they truly feel day after day because being hungry has dulled all their other senses. That is the cruel fact in a nation that produces far more food than it needs. And it makes plain, old hunger a major political issue.
In fairness, the USDA is not callously disregarding its responsibilities. According to Nord, it has more food assistance programs than farm and forestry programs, although how it can separate food from agriculture is a bit difficult to understand. What the experts who prepared this report don’t have is any understanding of public relations or any first hand knowledge of what it means to be desperately hungry when so many around you have so much.
There is no more graphic description of this stultifying, stupefying condition than the word "hunger."
Don’t mistake this for a tongue in cheek column. It is not. One has only so many chances of finding a better example of bureaucratic insensitivity. There is rarely anything really amusing when that occurs.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)