It's Thanksgiving here in the United States, and it's a very good time to be contrarian, and remember those who have little to be thankful for.
Last week, we heard that there were 49 million Americans going hungry, and a billion people around the world. The numbers are true, but it's worth getting a little wonky to understand what they mean because there are literally hundreds of ways to count the hungry. If we used the U.S. methods, hundreds of millions more people would be considered hungry around the world. If we used the UN methods, almost no one would hunger in America.
In the U.S., the USDA draws its data from surveys that measure household food security, defined as the condition that occurs when a household has "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life."
This is a technical definition, but as with all policy-related definitions, it has a long political history. While more explicitly political definitions like food sovereignty are helpful in understand why people go hungry, food security is helpful in understanding what it is to be hungry.
On their questionnaires, the USDA asks a panel of 10 questions (or 18 questions if there are children in the household) about, for instance, whether in the past 12 months "We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more." Questions like these try to grasp what we mean by hunger, by asking not about that gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach shared by the hungry and crash-dieters alike, but about the absence of access to that food in order to live healthily.