Feds try to sweep a dirty problem under the rug

KANSAS CITY - Apparently, the man didn't get the memo from the federal government. If he had, he wouldn't have been standing there with this sign: "HOMELESS. VERY HUNGRY. GOD BLESS."

When the words "HOMELESS," "HUNGRY" and "GOD" are combined, much less used alone, you feel compelled to help rather than drive by.

Good thing, then, that the man on the street corner didn't get the federal memo. Or else he'd be holding a sign that read, "HOMELESS. FOOD INSECURE. GOD BLESS."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has done away with hunger, but only rhetorically. It uses semantics to sweep a dirty national problem under the rug.

The USDA, advised by a scientific panel, recently determined that "hunger" was problematic. Scientists with the Committee on National Statistics of the National Academies told the USDA to go with terms like "low food security," which could more easily be measured.

As food pantries are seeing more clients than donations, as soup kitchen lines swell and their supplies shrink, it's nice to know the federal government is here to help.

At least 35 million people are living in poverty, and 11 million of them routinely go without food. Unless the bureaucrats behind this latest government mumbo-jumbo have been living in a bubble, they've experienced at least 6 degrees of separation from the neediest people.

The Committee on National Statistics told the USDA that hunger was defined as "a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation."

Who is to say what hunger pangs are "usual" and which are extraordinary? A bunch of scientists and politicians in an ivory tower who see people as statistics, not human beings, that's who.

Because they say hunger cannot easily be measured, to accurately analyze and identify it would require someone to interview individuals about whether their "involuntary lack of food" led to their "discomfort, illness, weakness and pain."

This makes no sense to Leslie Harris, who for more than 20 years has helped the needy in Kansas City, Kan. Each Thanksgiving she and other volunteers help the United Prayer Movement at Pleasant Green Baptist Church prepare and deliver more than 1,000 meals to homes. Last year 1,300 meals were delivered.

"Hunger has been in existence since the beginning of time," Harris said. "You can't do away with it just by calling it something else. You can't tell an infant that he's feeling insecure about food when that child is experiencing hunger. To say you have 'low food security' is odd to me, because it's not low security you have when you are hungry - it's no security."

At Kansas City Community Kitchen, the Rev. Allen Ohlstein dismissed the new federal standard. Ohlstein, an Episcopal deacon with Episcopal Community Services, helps run the soup kitchen that provides about 400 meals five days a week at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown Kansas City.

"You know, if these people really want to see what hunger looks like, they don't have to look it up in a reference book. They can just come down here and see it for themselves," Ohlstein said. "Terms like that desensitize people. They take the humanity away. Hunger is a very serious problem that public and private resources need to aggressively address."


Rhonda Chriss Lokeman, a columnist for the Kansas City Star, can be reached at lokeman@kcstar.com.