- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004

As has happened every December since 1987, the mayors of some 25 major U.S. cities have surveyed their emergency food pantries and found that demand is up.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ 2003 Hunger and Homeless Survey claims as a result of a weak economy, requests for emergency food assistance increased an average of 17 percent and requests for shelter assistance jumped an average of 13 percent over the last year.

Nonsense, said researchers with the Heritage Foundation.

“I have never read a worse mishmash of idiocy than this thing,” said analyst Robert Rector, who helped write a report for Heritage contradicting the Mayors’ report.

No one else seems to be able to find any evidence of massive new hunger, said Mr. Rector, noting that the Agriculture Department (USDA), the Census Bureau and America’s Second Harvest, the major supplier to food banks, have found only minimal increases in hunger in recent years.

More importantly, Heritage researchers said the mayors have almost always found double-digit increases in emergency food use in the last 16 years. If added together, this would mean that the number of people getting emergency food is now 12 times higher than the mid-1980s — a catastrophe, if true, Mr. Rector said.

In response, Eugene Lowe, a researcher with the mayors conference, said: “We have never said these numbers should be aggregated.”

“We have great faith in the people who are sending in the survey data to us. … I’m certain we have a very solid report,” Mr. Lowe said. But “this is not meant to be a scientific study. We never even said it was a national study.”

The Mayors’ report “is just a snapshot” about the use of emergency food centers, said Susan Hofer of Second Harvest.

Both Second Harvest and the USDA report on the number of individuals who are food insecure or seeking emergency food assistance, she explained. The conference’s report asks about the frequency of visits to the kitchens and pantries. Its findings — conducted “in a dragging economy and virtually unchanged unemployment numbers” — are “eminently believable to me,” she said.

The Mayors’ report “is consistent with other recent research that shows a general trend toward higher rates of hunger and food insecurity,” said Doug O’Brien, vice president for public policy at Second Harvest. It is also an “accurate portrayal” of hunger “as reported by those most intimate with the problem,” he added pointedly.

Kirk Johnson, a co-author of the Heritage report, was not impressed.

“If the [mayors] survey is not at all scientific, they are cloaking it in a certain kind of legitimacy that perhaps overstates its real usefulness in the policy debate,” he said.

Philosophical food fights are not new in Washington, but they may start popping up more regularly during this election year.

Heritage, which maintains that the nation’s welfare reforms are bringing about unprecedented successes in lowering poverty and welfare dependency, plans on hammering home these points in a series of reports.

Meanwhile, 10 anti-hunger groups have signed a “Millennium Declaration to End Hunger in America,” which calls on the president, Congress and other elected leaders to work to expand and improve public nutrition programs and ensure that all households have enough income to buy food.

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