Deceptions in the Hunger Crusade

A sucker might be born every minute, but this is getting hard to swallow.
By Thomas L. Burnett October 2013

Selling hunger is easy. Humans have a moral sense that stirs within the breast when another’s hunger is known. Everyone wants to help; that is only natural. Hunger sympathy is the commonest and least remarkable altruism.
Certainly hunger exists and resolving hunger is a moral imperative. The Bible teaches, “deal thy bread to the hungry[1].” Ethics requires a person to try to know the hungry and provide them with food and real solutions for their plight, always proceeding from a true assessment of scope and causes.

The public has been denied this true assessment. Reliable hunger numbers are hard to find. In the process of composing this article, this author spoke with a friend who had received a solicitation for funds from the Montana Food Bank Network. He got no further than reading that one in seven people are hungry. Disbelieving, he immediately discarded the piece. Inflated claims of hunger have the perverse effect of thwarting desires to help those who lack food.

The following representations made by the hunger-industrial complex can be refuted or have insufficient evidence in their support:
USDA’s food insecurity survey provides a reliable measure of food insecurity.
Food insecurity and hunger are semantic equivalents.
Children do not have sufficient food and only universal and free breakfast, lunch and supper, year-around, can solve the problem.
The program name SNAP accurately describes program outputs.
Food stamps primarily buy actual food.
The poor buy a lot of dry pasta like noodles and spaghetti.
The SNAP Challenge simulates life on food stamps.
SNAP recipients can’t afford their own food.
Cutting 5% from $78 billion food stamp spending necessarily requires cutting the number of recipients.
Alaska’s per person food stamp bonus is justified by higher food prices there.
The theory of calorie mining squares the circle of simultaneous obesity and hunger.
Not enough effort is given to teaching school students and aid recipients about good nutrition.
Nutrition education programs are proven to be good value for taxpayers.
Hunger crusaders are enemies of giant agri-business corporations.
Feeding America’s $1=8 meals figure means if you give them a dollar, they will provide the makings for eight meals.

Sometimes generous impulses are satisfied merely by contemplating hunger, by wanting to know that there are hungry people, especially hungry children, and that they are everywhere, unseen. “I’m thinking about people in need, therefore my compassion is great. I feel a comfortable superiority by thinking more about hungry people than others do.” Hunger portrayals in the media thus fall on the ready soil of fertile hearts. Celebrities[2], authors, movie directors and reporters assail the public with claims of wide-spread hunger. Many people find such messaging hard to grasp when what they observe is a fattening population. The incessant messaging has background support from government programs, non-profits and businesses, employees of which profit by cultivating charitable, and sometimes gullible, sentiments.

This article strives to starve gullibility, to insist that pathos have a factual basis. The public is fed a constant diet of misinformation, unhelpful if true causes are to be known and effective solutions to be gleaned. People have been satiated on hunger misinformation; it is time for a diet so that the focus can be on the important task of offering nutritious food to those who cannot provide it for themselves.

Quantifying Hunger

Feeding America, the nationwide network of food banks, advertises that seventeen million children in America live in a food-insecure household one in six Americans does not have access to enough food
limited resources prevent 50 million Americans from getting enough food.

From whence come these numbers?

The Unites States Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducts a survey[3] of households. It groups respondents into four categories ranging from High Food Security to Very Low Food Security. The last category was formerly Food Insecurity With Hunger. The term hunger is now not approved by the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT), part of the National Academies. It recommended changes in the interest of semantic integrity. “The CNSTAT panel also recommended that USDA make a clear and explicit distinction between food insecurity and hunger.” This official chastisement rarely gets clarified in the public discussion of the matter, however. Hunger is frequently the term used; it misleads the public.

A direct quote from the Committee’s criticism is:

Hunger is not adequately assessed in the food security survey.
Yet we hear Jeff Bridges’ End Hunger Network, the No Kid Hungry Campaign, the End Childhood Hunger conferences and endless haranguing in newspaper and television stories about widespread, lurking hunger. Feeding America scrupulously avoids the word hunger in the above statistics, but peppers the term liberally throughout their website[4], (a website whose photos feature numerous people with pounds to shed.)

The USDA survey tool has apparent flaws. It asks respondents about perceptions and memories of household conditions over the past 12 months. Temporal discontinuity-time lag-dilutes survey integrity; memories fade.

Fiscal emphasis, rather than food, is another potential weakness in survey methodology. Note the survey’s first four questions and their emphasis on money; all have money references.

Survey Questions Used by USDA to Assess Household Food Security[5]

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? (Yes/No)

Who thinks they have enough money? When a respondent hears these questions, their mind could divert to the issue of money, thinking that they “couldn’t afford” the things they want, in general, not just with respect to food. “Of course, I can’t afford many things.”

The CNSTAT committee on statistics may want to require future USDA surveys to address food itself, apart from financial perceptions, as well as the temporal separation problem.

Even with the time lag and financial diversion problems with the survey, only 5.7% of households were categorized as Very Low Food Security. For users of this survey to conclude that the food security situation in this country is “dire” could be an emotional binge.

Food insecurity and hunger are semantically non-equivalent. The USDA’s information is an unsure foundation, on which is built the entire hunger-industrial complex.

Childhood Hunger

Do children not have sufficient food?

Pudgy children are commonplace. Yet activists bemoan a dire situation of childhood hunger. Two sources are given; the general numbers from USDA’s questionable household survey and school teachers’ observations.

“Half of teachers surveyed reported that hunger is a serious problem in their classrooms[6]. Another 73 percent said they see students who regularly come to school hungry because there isn’t enough food at home.” Yet 67% of K-12 schools serve breakfast. These numbers contradict. If 67% of schools serve breakfast, only 33% of kids are not offered breakfast; how can 50% of teachers report that morning hunger is a serious problem?

Teachers often do not have knowledge of the particulars of homes’ inventories. How do teachers define a “serious problem?” Perhaps teachers are not recognizing a general state of pervasive hunger, but that there are a few that complain of hunger in spite of the school-based and other government food programs.

Children are glutted with food offerings. Primary schools can offer breakfast before school, breakfast in the classroom, a sack breakfast tardy students can pick up and eat in the classroom, a mid-morning fruit, vegetable and milk snack, lunch, after school supper, weekend food backpacks and the Summer Food Program. Some high schools offer teen food pantries. Kids’ parents get up to $200 in monthly food stamps in the child’s name. Pantries and soup kitchens serve children. Parents buy food with earned dollars. Children in pre-schools, day care centers and Head Start sites get government food. The effort is multi-faceted, pervasive and expensive. Children cannot escape servings; overweight children should not cause surprise.

In some schools, principals guard classroom instruction time from further encroachments of food serving times. Hunger advocates pressure principals to add the feedings[7].

At a Montana conference addressing childhood hunger, participants explored ways to increase numbers of children participating in school breakfast. Their preferred setting is in the classroom; before-school play is not interrupted and universal participation can be better assured. More kids are present at such a classroom feeding than for the before-school feeding. Seeking out the food is not optional. No stigma can attach to being needy if everyone is getting it; there is no line for the needy, as used to happen at school lunch. The dairy industry lobbies[8] schools to adopt breakfast in the classroom; that industry has obviously seen greater consumption of milk when in-class breakfast supplants before-school breakfast.

Free, universal lunch is being implemented around the country. The Obama Administration is urging schools to adopt the Community Eligibility Option[9] (CEO), whereby one low income school in a district, or a certain percentage of qualifying students, qualifies that entire district’s students to receive free lunch and breakfast regardless of household income. Boston schools[10] recently adopted CEO, though only 80% of the children there qualify for free or reduced school lunch; the children from homes where incomes are average or high are now herded to the free food. The Boston Globe reported:

Boston public schools will begin serving free lunches to all students this school year even if families have the financial means to pay, school officials are expected to announce Tuesday.

In some schools students are not allowed to pack lunches from home[11]. Unless they have a medical excuse, they must eat the food served in the cafeteria.

Certainly teacher observations of hungry children carry some validity. Strangely, isolated childhood hunger may exist despite the cornucopia of food provisioning. Errant parents foil best government efforts. Children who do not get up to catch the bus and whose parent delivers them to the school so late as to miss any of the three possible breakfast offerings will be hungry, even if their home kitchen shelves and refrigerators bulge with consumables. This conundrum defies remedy.

Plate waste measured at school lunch programs shows children qualifying for free lunch wasting 46% more[12] than children paying full price. Waste hardly indicates ravenous appetites; waste contradicts neediness claims.

Plate waste at a school lunch. The student holding the tray was ready to discard unwanted items; red grapes, apple slice, French toast strips, maple syrup.

Waste barrels containing food, including a substantial percentage of the apple slices, red grapes, celery, carrots and snap peas served, and copious amounts of plastic, cellophane and paper containers.

Summer food program waste is about 30%. Summer food program kids waste 48% of vegetables served[13]. A school food supervisor this author interviewed predicted the new requirements to serve more vegetables would simply increase the waste of those items.[14] This author confirmed substantial fruit and vegetable waste at an in-school observation.

Low participation-kids not using the program-in the Summer Food Program hints that children have more sources of food than what school provides. Low participation also undermines the rationale for food programs and proposals to expand them. Afterschool Alliance reported:

Last summer, only 1 in 7 of the children who depend on free or reduced-price school lunches through the National School Lunch Program during the school year received a summer meal[15].

Another source puts summer participation at 10.6 percent as many kids[16] as in free school lunch, 2.3 million vs. 21.5 million[17]. (Bear in mind that the summer program’s eligible participants are aged 0-18, a bigger cohort than that of the school year’s whose ages range from about 5 to those who have graduated.)[18]

Some explain low summer food participation as a function of the lack of busing, but when kids from the neighborhood near the serving site do not come, another explanation, like sufficiency of food for the child at home, makes more sense.

At the Montana childhood hunger conference, a speaker said summer participation was low even in feeding sites placed in low-income neighborhoods, and where kids are within walking distance of the site. The author has observed this first-hand. Kids and their parents fend for themselves. One conference speaker said that some kids look to weekends and vacation breaks with dismay “knowing they will have less food.” This phenomenon needs study. By all means, address the needs of any hungry child. Find those individuals and examine their circumstances. What failure is the cause? Do they return to school after a ninety-day vacation thinner?

Greater investment in free transportation, bringing kids to the food, or food to the kids, were two proposals to rectify low participation in summer food programs. To capture all possible hungry children, buses would have to comb the same routes as they do during the school year and bring kids for lunch. But what about breakfast? And supper? Would the kids have to be kept for the entire day, breakfast-to-dinner, to insure feeding? Or are kids and families more self-reliant than that, as indicated by low participation in summer feeding sites even those close to the homes of low-income children?

Heaping additional free meals on kids is more likely to promote weight gain than to succeed in the worthy work of solving hunger[19][20].

Experts claim that feeding children more will improve behavior, increase attendance, increase test scores and improve graduation rates[21]. John Endahl, of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, said, “We ran a pilot, providing free breakfast to all.” Some indicators of success went up but results were unsatisfying. “The problem[22] is that so many get breakfast at home. We saw no increase in scores though there is stuff out there that suggests that a healthy breakfast gets children ready to learn.” Scientists are straining to associate readiness to learn, proficiency, attendance and graduation rates with more school feedings. Every confirmatory finding is heralded. A study could ask if too frequent feedings and too many calories dazes kids.

SNAP Food Stamps

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the formal name for what is commonly known as food stamps. It is a $78 billion-a-year program. Food stamp participation doubled from 2004-2012, from 23 million recipients to 46 million. Yet “food insecurity” increased by 25% during the same period[23]. This dichotomy may best be reconciled by admitting the weakness of the term “food insecurity.”

It is not accurate to call this primarily a nutrition program. Nutrition seems a low priority to those who use the program. Convenience and flavor are recipients’ obvious priorities, and who can blame them? Many items purchased with food stamps are not nutritious. By one measure, $16 billion goes for sugary drinks and another $16 billion for chips, bagged snacks and candy[24]-the official candy bar of food stamps appears to be Pearson’s Salted Nut Roll- so every day, food stamps recipients spend $87 million for these unhealthful items. Store clerks admit that the purchases they ring up include a lot of junk, “stuff not very good for you.” This author has asked scores of grocery clerks what food stamps buy. Invariably they grimace and mention pop, chips, candy and donuts, or items that are fancier than they, the clerks, can afford. In scores of questions to store clerks about the shopping basket selections of food stamp recipients, responses were virtually unanimously critical.

When House Republicans recently passed a bill cutting 5% from the food stamp program, food aid advocates howled. said that, “As many as 3.8 million people would lose their food stamp benefits[25].” If sugary drinks, candy, chips and bagged snacks were prohibited, as they are in the Women, Infants and Children food program, no person would lose benefits and the program could be cut by 41%.

One grocery clerk the author interviewed said, “Food stamps are abused. They are abused by people who have no right to be on them. People can buy pop, which I disagree with. They buy a $6.00 sandwich from the deli when for $6.00 they could buy a loaf of bread and ingredients and have sandwiches for a week. We’ve asked people why they don’t do this and they say, ‘I don’t want to cook.’ They want it easy. We had a lady who bought cupcakes for her daughter’s school class using food stamps. One boy who appeared to be barely eighteen, and thus eligible by age for food stamps on his own, came to the store. He was dressed in Hot Topics-type gothic clothes. Shirts from Hot Topics are $30-50. Pants are $50-75. He had expensive, girly boots that cost $50-100. He had tons of bracelets that cost $5 each. He had at least $50 of jewelry. His girlfriend was similarly attired. He bought food items with food stamps. I thought, ‘The audacity!’”

It irritates her when people buy with food stamps yet carry a $500-$5,000 Prada or designer purse. Even knock-offs of designer purses are $100.

An Office of Public Assistance (OPA) worker said, “The Food Stamp program is very lax. We have no way to verify what recipients tell us. We can’t call the landlord and ask for verification that all the people listed on the application form actually live at that address. Lying about household composition is a daily occurrence. The people that come into our office don’t feel they should have to buy any food with their own money. That’s their money. They think the government is supposed to buy their food for them. They get food stamps so it frees up their other income for other discretionary purchases.”

“I go over what they can’t buy with food stamps. They can’t buy deli foods. They say, ‘You mean I can’t go to the deli and buy those expensive meats and cheeses for $14 per pound, I have to go to the meat counter and the dairy aisle and buy ordinary meats and cheeses?’ They’re infuriated.”

Asked “How many of your clients are feeble or temporarily needy, and likely to rebuild their lives if they just got some help, say they just lost a job or had some adverse circumstance?” she answered that 10% of her clients fit the profile of temporarily needy people taxpayers would love to help.

The OPA worker said many of her clients have Blackberry phones, nicer cars and internet access than she does, fake nails, hair extensions, tattoos and piercings, and can afford expensive food items she has to forego.

One man with a wife and four children, who was on food stamps and one other aid program and who hadn’t worked in some time, lamented that he had to sell one of his five horses because pasture rent was costing too much[26]. In his case, taxpayers were buying household food so he could buy horse food. In a roundabout way, tax funds were buying food for horses, an unexpected use of food stamps, indeed!

The food stamp program pretends that people are buying ingredients for cooking. In an analysis of store receipts that shows line items, scant evidence appears for this claim. Almost no receipts showed purchases of items that required cooking or any other kinds of preparation. Items typically can be immediately consumed, torn open, guzzled, or at most warmed up. Few cozy family suppers around the dinner table, after a tradition-rich cooking hour, can be inferred from what is purchased.

A compilation of recent food stamp receipts reveals non-nutritive items purchased with food stamps. Jell-O No Bake Oreo Cookie Dessert Mix, Nabisco Cheese Nips, Gatorade All Star, Betty Crocker Fruit Gushers, Mountain Dew, Capri Sun Mountain Cooler, Mini Marshmallows, Crème Soda, Mr. Goodbar Giant, Sobe Adrenaline, Ocean Spray Orange Juice, Diet Coke 12 Pak, Fridge Pak Diet Soda, Kitkat Minis, Ginger Snaps, Mountain Dew, Frappuccino, more Frappuccino, Dr. Pepper, Western Family Fruit Rings, Western Family Kookies Choc, Post Golden Crisp Cereal, Red Bull.

The movie, A Place at the Table, portrays food stamp recipients getting along on spaghetti. In $2,600 worth of food stamp store receipts this author has garnered, no spaghetti, noodles, oatmeal, tuna, rice, flour, lentils, or dried beans was seen. Healthful, substantive food should be available to the hungry; highly packaged and processed foods and non-nutritive items should be restricted. Restrictions like those in the Women, Infants and Children program would go a long way toward making the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program live up to the nutrition claim in its title.

A family with four children on free school lunch and SNAP will have about $16,800 per year in subsidized food, a figure that precludes hunger. Food bank food for some is on top of this figure.

Here is a quote from a person who is friends with numerous medical students:

(This author asked her how many of the medical students’ families were on food stamps.) She responded, “I can only think of one family out of about 25 that aren’t on food stamps, and they have a military stipend. Her friends “all do food stamps, one of whom said, “We have $500 for food each month, and we can’t even spend it all.”

“Right off the top of my head, I can think of two women, wives of medical students, who do cake decorating. Fancy, elaborate cake decorating. Expensive hobby? Not if you’re on food stamps!”

“About a month ago, I went to my friend’s baby shower. Her husband is a medical student, and the girl that hosted the baby shower was also the wife of a medical student, as were almost all the guests. The food table was elaborate! Four different kinds of decadent, home-made cupcakes, numerous candy bowls, multiple cookie trays, punch, etc. This is what food stamps are buying! Party food, dinner parties, Christmas treats, fancily decorated cakes. I’ve seen it first hand!”

The food stamp birthday picnic and party for four one-year-olds and their families.

According a low-income housing manager[27], food stamp recipients discard and share considerable amounts of food. Every time the manager cleans an apartment at move-out time he finds copious amounts of food abandoned.

One couple[28] received food stamps for a month early in their married life. They said that during the month they were on food stamps, they had far more food than when they were buying all their own in the months preceding and following, months in which they considered their financial and food lives normal.

Taxpayers want to help end hunger, but the way the SNAP food stamp program is used gives little evidence of widespread hunger.

The SNAP Challenge

Claim: The SNAP Challenge simulates life on food stamps

Truth: The SNAP Challenge distorts

What is the SNAP Challenge? “Participating in the SNAP Challenge is simple: eat for one week using only the amount of money you would have if you relied solely[29] on SNAP to pay for your food. Each person can spend a total of $31.50 on food and beverages during the Challenge week. This budget translates to $4.50 per day, or $1.50 per meal[30].”

A full food stamp allotment is $200 a month, or $2.22 a meal. A good food bank[31] gives a single individual 160 pounds of food for the month[32] valued at over $320. That is another $3.56 a meal and brings the total up to $5.78, a far cry from the miserly $1.50 required by SNAP Challenge rules.

The same friend quoted in the introduction who discarded the food bank solicitation mentioned being surprised to read about a homeless man in a newspaper who got $200 monthly in food stamps. This friend said that was way more than he spends for food. The homeless man also visits the food bank.

Most food stamp recipients are not helpless. They earn money that can supplement the $5.78. They might even get food discarded or shared by other recipients. One young lady, interviewed by the author, said her roommate, who was on food stamps, freely gave away food.

With a child in school, SNAP Challenge Week is less daunting. The child’s needs are met at school; a child gets breakfast, morning snack, lunch, possibly after-school supper, and a backpack full of food meant to feed the child through the weekend[33], so other householders get to eat what food stamps provides for the child, increasing the per meal allotment. The total per meal allowance could be $7.67, not including earned food and items other recipients share from their excess. This figure is about three times what the average American spends per meal.

In Anchorage, Alaska, recipients get an extra 20% in SNAP benefits[34], though the food component of the cost of living is only 4% higher[35] than in the rest of the country. Taking the SNAP Challenge there would be less challenging than in other states.

The SNAP Challenge gives a false impression of what life for food stamp recipients is like.

Can Obesity be Caused by Hunger?

Claim: The theory of calorie mining squares the circle of simultaneous obesity and hunger

Truth: Explanations from common sense trump convoluted science

Some explain obesity in the poor, the supposedly hungry, like Sandra Lee[36] does here:

Moreover, there is an unexpected–but frequent–link between hunger and obesity. The inexpensive foods that these families and children often must rely on have a greater number of calories and less nutritional value than more expensive fruits and vegetables. In addition, these unfortunate individuals often experience irregular eating patterns–having food one day but not the next–which can lead to weight gain.

Lee seems to say, “Recipients choose cheap, unhealthy foods because they are calorie-dense; they do it as a survival mechanism.” Store receipts show this to be a fallacy. If Lee’s theory were true, recipients would not buy a $2.00 liter bottle of Pepsi at Papa Murphy’s, but would go two blocks away, to Albertson’s, where a two liter Pepsi is $1.59. They also would not choose Pepsi for $4.99 for 144 fl. oz. in Albertson’s, when they could walk four steps and choose the same size store brand, Superchill, for $2.99. Store receipts show food stamp recipients often choose costly national brands over economical generics and store brands. Recipients do not seem to be constrained by a low food stamp allotment. This author’s analysis of soda purchased in full-service grocery stores shows 87% of purchases were for brand-name soda.

Hunger is largely unseen but fattening girths are readily seen; obesity blossoms on all sides. Yet purported hunger persists in the same populations. They are a knotty twosome. Hunger advocates toil to square the circle of simultaneous hunger and obesity in low-income populations.

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) puts it this way:

Households with limited resources to buy enough food often try to stretch their food budgets by purchasing cheap, energy-dense foods that are filling – that is, they try to maximize their calories per dollar in order to stave off hunger[38].

FRAC also blames “greater exposure to marketing of obesity-promoting products.” Could this merely be a way of referring to more time on the couch spent watching television? “Adverse socioeconomic position,” (having a low income,) “is associated with a cumulative increase in the time spent on screen-based entertainment[39].” Another cause of the obesity in the hungry, according to FRAC, is “cycles of food deprivation and overeating.” This explanation should be taken cautiously, when a simple, obvious explanation, over-abundance of tasty food items, is at hand.

Researchers have found that food stamp program participation is positively related to obesity in low income women[40]. In practical terms, receiving food stamps causes obesity.

The Centers for Disease Control publishes two county-level maps, one of obesity and another of food stamp participation rates. They show a close correspondence. Where food stamp usage is high, so is the incidence of obesity.

Earlier in this article, receipts were shown to discredit by the oft-heard claim of low-income peoples’ reliance on dried pasta products.

Calorie maximizers cited by Sandra Lee and FRAC turn out to be instead taste maximizers, convenience maximizers. Food stamp recipients have enough credit on their EBT cards to choose convenience, taste and brand loyalty; few need to stretch their allowance.

An obvious explanation beckons, contorted explanations notwithstanding. Being overweight is an expected result of the conjunction of abundant, tasty food-like items, and average appetites.

Forty-two times as many Americans are overweight or obese as are underweight[41], and not all cases of being underweight are attributable to lack of resources for food. For all but a few, excess of food is a bigger problem than lack.

Obesity in the low-income populations is best explained by appetites satisfied by free food, not calorie-maximizing.

Nutrition Education: Does it Work?

It would seem obvious that if food stamp recipients make deleterious food choices, what they need is education so that they might do better. This is so obvious that government funds numerous nutrition education programs. This author attended a summit on childhood hunger and picked up a brochure publicizing a menagerie of twenty-seven nutrition education programs:

SNAP-Ed for food stamp recipients, WIC education for recipients of Women, Infant and Children food program, Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program EFNEP, Nutrition and Physical Activity program NAPA, Montana Team Nutrition, Montana FoodCorps, Cooking in the Classroom, Cooking Matters, MSU Extension Food and Nutrition, MSU Extension 4-H, MSU Nutrition Education Program, Office of Public Instruction-School Nutrition Program, Office of Public Instruction-Family and Consumer Sciences, Office of Public Instruction –Agriculture Education, Office of Public Instruction- Agriculture Education Grades 7&8, Montana Action for Healthy Kids, Montana Rural Health Initiative, Eat Right Montana, Eat Smart, Learning by Nature, Gallatin Valley Farm to School, Farm to Cafeteria Network, Montana No Kid Hungry, Montana Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, 21st Century Learning Center, Coordinated Approach to Child Health, Child and Adult Care Food Program, Montana Agriculture in the Classroom.

But do the programs work? Measurable results are rare and spare. Holding classes and handing out certificates of completion does not indicate changes in buying or eating, the ostensible goals of the program. Programs excel at spending taxpayer money, a result that serves government employees and little else.

A worker in the EFNEP program said her program has completion data to verify its effectiveness, and that SNAP-Ed does not. The cost for SNAP-Ed in 2007 was $275 million a year[42][43]. Even EFNEP’s way of quantifying success was unconvincing, amounting to counting numbers of attendees, “bottoms in seats.[44]”

Many government programs have difficulty showing cost-effective results. Nutrition education has a similar famine of proof. Indeed, populations targeted by nutrition programs are going backwards on attaining healthy weights.

Food Aid Advocates: With or Against Agri-business?

Lori Silverbush, the co-director of the movie A Place at the Table, castigates large agricultural businesses saying “they lobby behind the scenes to defeat food policy.” She ignores how covetous ConAgra, Kraft, Nestle, PepsiCo and Frito-Lay are of school food and SNAP as markets for their products, and sources of profit.

Some of the largest of the large send emissaries to sit on the board of Feeding America, giving them a charitable cloak for lobbying Congress to plump food stamp spending. Around the boardroom table are ConAgra Foods, The Kroger Co., MARS Food, General Mills and Walmart.

It’s hard to imagine that Silverbush is unaware of the profit motive at work when ConAgra joins her in exaggerations of hunger. This makes her unkind words toward food corporations a false front. ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland may have worked out a deal with her: You can whip us as long as you don’t reveal how reliant we are on wasteful government spending in food. The alliance of progressives with mega-corporations is a strange brew.

Matthew Yglesias, writing in Slate[45], calls a Republican effort to reform food stamps a “morally obscene plan to substantially cut food-stamp spending while leaving agricultural subsidized unscathed,” deflecting public understanding of food stamps as an agricultural subsidy. Corn growers and high fructose corn syrup corporations rely mightily on food stamp spending and its sandy foundation of distorted hunger numbers.

Cost per Meal Contortions

Feeding America shows an icon on their website: $1=8 meals. The header reads: Your Gift Provides Great Impact. This would lead a person to conclude that donating a dollar provides the contents for eight meals; they can provide a meal for $.12. This person would be wrong.

USDA reimburses schools $3.03 for every school lunch they serve free. Is that the cost of a meal, or is Feeding America’s $.12 the real cost? A food stamp recipient gets $2.22 per meal, $200 for ninety meals in a month. Gallatin County, Montana, pays a private contractor $1.48[46] per meal served in the jail. Feeding America’s pitch lacks credibility.

This author spoke to the director of the Montana Food Bank Network (MFNB), about the meals-per-dollar figures they advertise. In past years they said $1=7 meals. Their method of computation is a complex absurdity. First they wrest a hypothetical number of meals from the number of pounds of food distributed by their statewide affiliates. They then divide by the number of dollars they receive in cash donations. But dollars coming in is not related to number of pounds or meals distributed. It is illogical to make a ratio of unrelated things and use it to infer relationship. The number of cash dollars contributed has no direct correlation to the number of pounds, hence hypothetically-derived meals, distributed.

MFNB has in recent months had to reduce the purported number of meals per dollar from seven to five and then to three. This pirouette confirms the doubtfulness of the methodology. (Their new computations arrive at $1=3.37 meals; they round down the $1=3 for simplicity in marketing.)

If a person donated $10,000 to Feeding America, thinking of the $1=8 ratio, the donor might expect that 80,000 more meals would be provided; donating $10,000 to MFBN should provide 30,000 meals. But MFBN would not guarantee it would buy food; the money could go to expenses such as marketing, wages and capital improvements. Food comes from donations, from grocery stores and food drives. The $10,000 would enlarge the numerator while the denominator, number of meals, would remain the same. The ratio would fall, a perplexing, contrary outcome to that expected by the donor. They might say, “What do you mean, for every dollar I give fewer meals are provided?” This shows how contrived the $1=8 meals, or $1=3 meals, seductions are.

MFNB claims that “$225 provides enough food for 7 individuals for a month[47].” That works out to $.36 per meal. Yet SNAP Challenge participants are allowed $1.50 per meal, and a full food stamp SNAP allotment is $2.22 per meal. Either food bank numbers are meaningless or food stamp allotments are mis-calculated.

Food banks cannot provide a meal for $.12 or $.33; even this three-fold spread between Feeding America’s claim and MFNB’s claim alerts observers to mathematical chicanery. If twelve cents was enough to provide a meal, $200 monthly in food stamps is enough to provide 53 meals a day to a recipient. If food banks could provide meals for $.12, taxpayers should have them train the school lunch program so that $10 billion of the annual spending of $11 billion there could be saved.

The giving public is being conned by unreliable numbers put forward by food aid activists. This harms real efforts to ameliorate hunger.


Selling hunger is easy. But the numbers used in the sales pitch are wrong.

Good-hearted people deserve better information as to the number of people actually hungry, the causes of their hunger, and how best to help.



I am indebted to Abraham Burnett for suggestions that improved this article.

[1] Isaiah 58:7







[8] Interview with a school lunch administrator






[14] For a CBS News story confirming this expected result, see:




[18] Digging into these participation numbers further, 3.5 billion lunches are served yearly in the school lunch program to those eligible for free-and-reduced lunches. 140 million lunches are served in the Summer Food Service Program, 3.9% as many, in a period 1/3 as long as the school year, annualized to11.8%. This calculation comports fairly well with figures in the above paragraph. See the footnotes from fns.usda.


[20] Author has estimated that a K-5 student could get as many as 2,700 calories at school, even with the reduced calorie guidelines recently put in place. Items available at home would compound this total, more than doubling recommended calorie consumption for a sedentary child of this age.


[22] Hopefully parents feeding their own children was considered a problem because it clouded results, not because independence is frowned on.


[24] Extrapolation from store receipt data in the author’s possession


[26] Author interview with the man who bought the horse

[27] interview by the author

[28] Author interview

[29] This sole reliance claim is a fallacy in the Challenge. Few people rely solely on SNAP food stamps. They access school food, summer food programs, Headstart food, subsidized congregate meals, commodity distribution programs, community kitchens, Indian Reservation food programs, subsidized day-care food, food banks, and food purchased with earned income. If persons rely solely on food stamps, they receive the full allotment, $2.22, not the average amount of $1.50. Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee point out that food stamps supplements other sources of income and food; they refute the sole reliance claim.


[31] If you live near a parsimonious food bank that only gives you a four day supply every month, you might have to do with $2.22 plus $.67, or $2.89 per meal, as a single individual. This exceeds what Americans spend on average.

[32] Interview with a food bank manager












[44] EFNEP asks participants before and after the course about their attitudes toward foods and food preparation. Most improve their attitudes, which program workers measure as success. No commitments are required and no actions are required to be taken and measured, just attitudinal shifts. They had about 500 people take the course in Yellowstone County in a recent year. 200-300 “graduated. For some, it’s the only certificate they’ve ever earned. They prize the certificate and if they lose it, they ask for a copy.” The program worker took this as an indicator of pride in their new learning. Maybe the answer is more mundane. They can present this certificate to Child Protective Services as proof of 5-6 hours of family skills training and it helps them get their child back. This is strong motivation for completion and for holding onto their certificate, much stronger than pride in changing their attitudes toward vegetables.


[46] Email from Gallatin County commissioner


Tom Burnett
406-582-0870 (h)
406-539-7075 (c)

Each American’s share of the $222 trillion fiscal gap is $709,265. Bloomberg: Kotlikoff and Burns. (The official debt is only $17 trillion of it.)
The fiscal gap is the difference between government promises and expected revenues.

Tom Burnett
406-582-0870 (h)
406-539-7075 (c)

Each American’s share of the $222 trillion fiscal gap is $709,265. Bloomberg: Kotlikoff and Burns. (The official debt is only $17 trillion of it.)
The fiscal gap is the difference between government promises and expected revenues.

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