The word “hunger” has long applied to a range of people, from the starving child in Africa to the homeless man who needs a free meal at a shelter.

So when a charity warns that a fifth of children in the United States and in Oklahoma are hungry, what exactly does that mean?


Sources:U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2011 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau., Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jeff Jaynes knows. As executive director of Restore Hope Ministries in Tulsa, he sees people formerly called “the hungry” walk into his food pantry every day.

There was the Iraq war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who couldn’t keep a job and was nearly homeless. He came to Jaynes’ pantry in an industrial area west of downtown needing rent assistance. The organization helped pay living expenses and offered him food because his ability to find it was uncertain.

Then there was college-educated, single mother who had survived cancer, lost her job and had to choose between buying food and health insurance. The pantry offered her food so she could focus her limited resources on paying for health coverage.

Jaynes’ clients often “need help getting out of temporary crises,” he said. They may not be starving but are what’s called “food-insecure.”

“We’re trying to provide hope so that people know that this isn’t what defines them,” Jaynes said.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed how it classifies hunger, saying the term was imprecise and hard to measure. Instead, it began using four labels related to access to food: high food security, marginal food security, low food security and very low food security. The food-insecure fall into the bottom two tiers. Low security means reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet; very low security means disrupted food patterns and reduced food intake because of lack of money.

People at the bottom are most likely to suffer from hunger. Nearly all have skipped meals or cut back on meal size because they  couldn’t afford to buy more food, couldn’t afford balanced meals, or had eaten less than they felt they should, the USDA found.

Oklahoma has tens of thousands of residents who are food-insecure. In 2011, it ranked 15th highest in food insecurity among all states and the District of Columbia, with 17.2 percent experiencing limited or uncertain access to food, a USDA survey found. The national average was 16.4 percent. One in four Oklahoma children are food insecure.

There are several indicators of food insecurity, but the biggest are unemployment and poverty.

People uncertain about getting food don’t necessarily suffer from hunger, said Ross Fraser, director of media relations at Feeding America, a national charity.

“We never want to exaggerate the issue of food insecurity,” he said, adding that insecurity isn’t comparable to starvation in developing nations.

The more nuanced measures help explain why high obesity rates can occur among those who need food aid. Poor people tend to have fewer grocery options, so they settle for getting the cheapest food, which is high in calories and sodium, Fraser said.

Fraser said those most affected by food insecurity are the elderly and children, and they can suffer terrible consequences from lack of adequate nutrition.

Food insecurity can exacerbate health issues, such as high blood pressure, that are common to the elderly.

Children still are developing mentally and physically, said Maggie Hoey, communications and marketing manager at the Community Food Bank of eastern Oklahoma.

“If they don’t get sufficient food, they’re going to experience challenges for the rest of their life,” she said.

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