american English

“Hunger” is in the mind (or the stomach)
of the beholder

We make a quick return to American English today, with a guest post by Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of the book, All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?.


American society is willing to use the words “hungry” and “hunger” to denote a wide variety of situations and feelings, except, ironically, the condition in which an American truly can’t afford enough to eat.

“Hunger” is frequently used in the media, in advertisements, and in general American conversation on a casual basis. Ambitious athletes, businesspeople, and politicians who very much want to win in their fields are called “hungry”. People waiting to be fed at a restaurant often complain that they’re “hungry”, or even “starving”.

Bragging that it still served free meals on flights, Continental Airlines ran an advertising campaign urging customers to “Check Your Hunger at the Gate”.

In the last few years, The New York Times has run the following headlines: “Out with the Fat, in with the Hungry” (describing wealthy art collectors as “hungry” for new pieces); “Phish Returns to Feed Its Hungry Fans” (about a rock band); “Hungry in New York? Buy a Beer” (a travel section article on bars that also provide food); and “Plugged-In Age Feeds a Hunger for Electricity”.

Yet the Times also ran two pieces questioning whether people in America ever lacked enough food to be called truly hungry, since the U.S. food deprivation situation wasn’t quite as bad as in North Korea or Somalia.

In the late 1990s, the Clinton Administration started using a methodology to determine how many people in America were “food insecure” – unable to afford a consistent supply of food – and “hungry”, the most severe form of food insecurity. It turned out that tens of millions of Americans were food insecure and millions suffered from actual hunger at some point during a year. Embarrassed by the skyrocketing number of people in both categories, during their watch the Bush Administration stopped using the term “hunger” entirely and instead called the condition “very low food security”.

In my hometown of New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s administration has long denied that the City has any significant hunger problem, despite federal statistics that prove more than 1.4 million city residents live in homes that can’t afford enough food, and about that many are forced to use food pantries and soup kitchens. Yet his social service agency recently re-named its “Food and Hunger Hotline” the “Emergency Foodline”.

Our media and governmental leaders seem to think that merely changing terminology will cover up the problem. George Orwell would be proud.

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Joel Berg

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