Where seldom is heard an embarrassing word

Where seldom is heard an embarrassing word

Who would have thought it possible? No one in America will ever be hungry again.

Just last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 35 million Americans (1′.4 million of whom were children) went without food at least part of the time. For those who prefer percentages, that is 1′ percent of last year’s U.S. population, or 1.’ people out of every 10. Of this number, 10.8 million went without food most of the time.

All 35 million were the barely living symbols of a national disgrace. No matter how you slice it, 1′ percent is an obscene chunk of an American pie, the main ingredient of which is a Gross Domestic Product of more than $1′ trillion annually, or nearly $4′,000 per person.

As of mid-November, though, those 35 million people are hungry no longer.

True, eliminating hunger usually means supplying people who have no food with at least enough nutritious food to just get by. Doing that, however, proved too tall an order for successive administrations. Although some clearly did better than others, no one ever succeeded fully.

How, then, was this amazing feat finally accomplished? How did America finally manage to fully erase hunger from its lexicon?

It would be wonderful to report that it did so by supplying nutritious food to those 35 million people, but the USDA was as unable to accomplish that in ‘005 as it ever was. So it did the next best thing: It fully erased hunger from its lexicon — literally. People who were hungry only a year earlier suffered from "very low food security" in ‘005, but not from hunger.

No, this is not a joke. Hunger was eliminated in America by eliminating the word from the official statistics. In its place is the phrase "very low food security," which conjures up many images (someone pocketing a peanut butter cup while the security guard is off catching 40 winks comes quickly to mind), but only to those who have advanced degrees in bureaucratic doublespeak does it conjure up the image of a family with nothing to put on the table for the past three days.

The man in charge of the USDA’s annual hunger report — forgive me; I meant its food security survey — is a sociologist by the name of Mark Nord. Hunger, he explained to The Washington Post, is "not a scientifically accurate term for the specific phenomenon being measured" by the USDA.

That is why the USDA three years ago sought the help of a panel of experts "to ensure that the measurement methods USDA uses to assess households’ access — or lack of access — to adequate food and the language used to describe those conditions are conceptually and operationally sound."

Hunger, that panel decided, "should refer to 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."

Two terms were decided on: "Food Insecure without Hunger" (meaning people who went without food some of the time) and "Food Insecure with Hunger" (meaning people who went without food much, if not most, of the time). The problem, of course, was that hunger was still a statistic in America. That is why the USDA went back to its lexicographical groaning board this year for its ‘005 report and eliminated hunger entirely. The "food insecure without hunger" are now listed under "low food security," while the "food insecure with hunger" are now found under "very low food security."

Actually, I was not as precise as the USDA would want in defining the "very low food security" category. According to it, the term describes a condition in which there are "multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake."

For the record, "multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns" means "went without food for several days."

What the term truly describes, of course, is the callousness of a bureaucracy intent on hiding the truth about the extent of hunger in America, which has been rising steadily since ‘001 after nearly a decade in decline. What we do not know cannot hurt politicians at the polls. (An interesting aside: The annual food security survey is released every October. This year, with the numbers continuing to climb, the survey was delayed "at the printer’s" until mid-November, as was an announcement that the word hunger was being relegated to the same exile as "stay the course.")

Two halachic principles stand out here — "lifnei iver," or the placing of a stumbling block before the blind, and "geneivat da’at," the theft of knowledge. While they apply generally ("Says [the Babylonian sage] Samuel, ‘It is forbidden to deceive people, even if they are worshippers of the stars’"; see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Chulin 94a), a slew of economic crimes derive from these principles, including such obvious ones as false advertising and misleading sales pitches.

In the hunger case, not only is a "stumbling block" being placed before the blind — we, the people, are the blind — but there is theft of knowledge, as well, because what we do not know about we cannot lobby to correct.

This puts "lifnei iver" even more firmly in the picture, because its classic non-business definition is preventing someone from performing a mitzvah, a commandment, and Torah law at times seems preoccupied with hunger and its elimination — the old-fashioned way, by feeding the hungry and otherwise purging poverty from our midst.

Deuteronomy 15:4-11 is a case in point: "There shall be no needy among you…," it says, "if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all the mitzvot that I enjoin upon you this day….[If] there is a needy person among you…, [g]ive to him readily and have no regrets when you do so….For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land."

For those who do not get the Torah’s message, Isaiah puts it in plainspeak. What is it that God wants of us? Among other things, "It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; [and] when you see the naked, to clothe him…." (See Isaiah 58:7.)

"Very low food security" is not plainspeak, but doublespeak, deliberately ambiguous or obscure language.

That 1′ Americans out of every 100 must live with hunger is our shame. That our government can get away with obscuring the truth is our sin.