September was an unusual month for the people who focus on whether Americans are getting enough food to keep them healthy. Early in the month, a Wall Street Journal contributor took the federal government to task for "distorting" the numbers on food insecurity. At the end of September, the New York Post carried an op-ed with the headline, Feeding America: ‘Public service' lies.
Feeding America is a large nonprofit that raises money and secures food donations on behalf of food banks nationwide. The Post op-ed written by William Benson Huber zeroed in on the organization’s message in its public service announcements. Huber opened his op-ed with a quote from a radio ad, "People say I’m a pretty good kid. Why, in a country as rich as America, should I have to go to bed hungry?"
The ads, writes Huber, "inform us of a horror we’d otherwise think impossible: America has so failed its children that 17 million — one in five — don’t have enough to eat. Except that, enjoyable as all this self-loathing might seem, it’s simply a fairy tale."
Huber, who is a marketing consultant and not a full-time Post employee, then challenged Feeding America’s "nonsensical claim that one in five kids is fighting starvation daily."
"The only basis for Feeding America’s claim comes from U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys in which heads of households were asked if at any time during a calendar year their children were a) unable to eat what they wanted; b) unable to eat in whatever quantity they wanted; c) forced to eat cheaper brands, or d) afraid their food supply might run out on any single day."
In this fact-check, we focus on Huber’s statement that Feeding America misled the public when it said that "one in five kids is fighting starvation daily."
As it turns out, we can find no evidence that Feeding America ever made that claim. We asked Huber, and he backed away from it.
"The words they use about going to bed hungry seems to me to be starving," Huber said. "I applied that word to their language."
Feeding America spokesman Ross Fraser told PunditFact that his organization is very careful with its language, and it never speaks of kids starving.
"We say ‘facing hunger,’ or ‘at risk of hunger,’ or ‘on the precipice of hunger,’ " Fraser said. "Because the federal government’s data is not about hunger. It’s about food insecurity."
We’ll get into the federal data in just a bit, but beyond denying that Feeding America speaks of starvation, Fraser also denied that his group ever used the line about kids going to bed hungry.
"We don’t have any public service announcements that use that," Fraser said.
Ellyn Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Ad Council, the corporate-backed nonprofit that distributes the announcements, was equally emphatic.
"I have confirmed that we have never used the line you are referring to in a PSA," Fisher said.
The radio and video segments we found on the Ad Council website did not contain the language Huber cited. Huber said he wrote it down but he was not able to provide any further proof. Our search of the Internet Archive, a massive compendium of audio, video and text posted on the Internet, also came up empty.
Huber also named two celebrity spokeswomen for Feeding America, Paula Deen and Beyonce, that the organization said had not been part of its public service efforts. Huber later told us that Deen had done some work for New York food banks, but that, "strictly speaking I don't know if she had an audio PSA."
Further, Huber acknowledged that in order to shorten the piece, he paraphrased the questions he drew from the Agriculture Department’s survey. Here are the actual statements and questions put to families:
1. "We relied on only a few kinds of low-cost food to feed our children because we were running out of money to buy food." Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
2. "We couldn’t feed our children a balanced meal, because we couldn’t afford that." Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
3. "The children were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food." Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
4. In the last 12 months, did you ever cut the size of any of the children’s meals because there wasn’t enough money for food?
5. In the last 12 months, were the children ever hungry but you just couldn’t afford more food?
6. In the last 12 months, did any of the children ever skip a meal because there wasn’t enough money for food?
7. (If yes to question 6) How often did this happen—almost every month, some months but not every month, or in only 1 or 2 months?
8. In the last 12 months did any of the children ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn’t enough money for food?
Number of children facing hunger
To the casual reader, Feeding America’s claim that one in five children faces hunger might sound as though one in five kids actually goes hungry. The organization provides a more nuanced view on its website, and we wanted to lay out the numbers here. The summaries all go back to those USDA questions.
The Agriculture Department staff told us that they order these questions by the severity of the situation they describe. The fifth question, about the children being hungry because of a lack of money, triggers the department's most worrisome category of "very low food security." In the latest survey, about 765,000, or 1 percent of all children, lived in families where the answer was "yes."
The government uses the less severe category, "low food security," for children who live in families where, at the very least, a lack of money meant the kids couldn’t get a balanced meal during the last 12 months.
The number of children in that group, plus the very low security group, is about 8.5 million, or about 11.7 percent of all children.
The most commonly heard statistic, that one in five children live in food insecure households, refers to the 15.7 million kids that live in families in which, at the very least, anyone in the household of any age couldn’t afford a balanced meal at some point during the year. This includes adults and children.
Deborah Frank, a pediatrician at the Boston University School of Medicine and member of the National Commission on Hunger, said many studies show that simply living in a low food security household is enough to undercut a child’s well being.
"The hurt can be lasting, Frank said. "If it cuts into how much kids learn, if it makes them less healthy, and how healthy a baby they have, these are all ways that children are hurt by not having enough of the right kinds of food."
Frank and Feeding America noted that the problem in America is less about children having enough calories, and more about the nutritional quality of the food they eat.
Huber said that Feeding America was lying when it said kids were starving in America. Huber acknowledged that "starving" was his word, not the nonprofit’s. The sentence about children "going to bed hungry" was essential to Huber’s argument, but we could find no evidence that Feeding America ever used that phrase. Feeding America also denied using that phrase.
While Huber insisted it was accurate, he was unable to provide any evidence.
One of the principles of PunditFact is that people who make factual claims are accountable for their words and should be able to provide evidence to back them up. Huber has none.
As such, we rate the claim Pants on Fire.