More Malnourished Hunger Reporting

Reporter Julie Bosman finds the "Newly Poor Swell Lines at Nation's Food Banks." First up? A family of three earning $55,000 a year. And there's more statistical shoddiness.

Julie Bosman's malnourished hunger reporting continued with Friday's front-page story from Morristown, N.J., "Newly Poor Swell Lines at Nation's Food Banks."

Once a crutch for the most needy, food pantries have responded to the deepening recession by opening their doors to what Rosemary Gilmartin, who runs the Interfaith Food Pantry here, described as "the next layer of people" - a rapidly expanding roster of child-care workers, nurse's aides, real estate agents and secretaries facing a financial crisis for the first time.

Demand at food banks across the country increased by 30 percent in 2008 from the previous year, according to a survey by Feeding America, which distributes more than two billion pounds of food every year. And instead of their usual drop in customers after the holidays, many pantries in upscale suburbs this year are seeing the opposite.

Here in Morris County, one of the wealthiest counties in the country, the Interfaith pantry opened for an extra night last week to accommodate the growing crowds. Among the first-time visitors were Cindy Dreeszen and her husband, who both have steady jobs - his at a movie theater and hers at a government office - with a combined annual income of about $55,000.

Is a family of three making $55,000 a year really "poor," as the headline argues?

Experience suggests it's wise for journalists to treat statistics from liberal hunger groups (like that eye-opening increase of 30%claimed by Feeding America) with trepidation - they live in a world where demand for food rises exponentially every year, to the point where America should be looking more like North Korea than the most prosperous nation in history.

But Bosman doesn't question Feeding America, even though the group is prone to gross exaggeration: A public service announcement from the group claims that "one in eight Americans struggles with hunger each year." Is this actual near-starvation or a frat-boy's empty fridge? FA doesn't say. In fact, FA is getting their statistics from a distorted survey taken every year by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, with vague questions about "food insecurity" (since actual hunger in America is vanishingly rare). Some sample questions from the survey:

"We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more." Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?

"We couldn't afford to eat balanced meals." Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?

Back to Bosman's latest story. After more anecdotes about people lining up in front of food banks in suburban neighborhoods, Bosman throws out self-reported statistics from the food bank she opened her story with:

In Morristown, Ms. Gilmartin, who started volunteering at the Interfaith pantry 13 years ago, has watched a stream of new faces pushing shopping carts among the cardboard boxes on metal shelves in a former nursing home. In 2008, the pantry gave away 620,000 pounds of food, a 24 percent increase from 2007; in November, December and January it had a 24 percent increase in customers and a 45 percent increase in food distributed, compared with the same period the previous year.