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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

food insecurity

(2000’s | bureaucratese | “not knowing where your next meal is coming from,” “malnutrition”)

Just as “dysfunctional family” is a classic example of therapese, “food insecurity” is unmistakable bureaucratese. The first use I found in LexisNexis dates from 1977, uttered by none other than Lester R. Brown, environmental crier in the wilderness for nigh onto fifty years now. But most early examples of the term come from reports by the UN, the World Bank, or other such do-gooder organizations. The adjective version, “food insecure,” pops up for the first time in 1988. In the early years, it was generally used in the context of talking about hunger in Africa, but now it applies readily anywhere.

The earliest uses of “food insecurity” were not generally defined, and it may have had a broader connotation ca. 1980. In 1983, the co-founder of the Club of Rome, Aurelio Peccei, used the term in an address to the Club: “In the past, the concept of food security could never become a cultural value, because food insecurity was then the norm. Only more recently, since it has been shown that enough food could be produced to satisfy all human needs, has food security become an moral and humanitarian issue.” As in Brown’s use of the phrase, “food insecurity” seems to portend problems on a global scale, rather than on local or even national levels. Food insecurity leads to political insecurity and even revolution, not just individual uncertainty about access to sustenance.

By 1990, when U.S. agencies were classifying individuals and families as “food-insecure,” the USDA defined it as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” The Associated Press (1999) summarized it as “unable to meet basic food needs at all times.” It’s not quite as bad as hunger, but it’s only one shaky step above that; any reversal of fortune can kick you into a much worse state. It’s closer to “malnutrition” (or “malnourished”), which didn’t mean you were starving, but did mean you were underfed.

“Food insecurity” is a functionary’s attempt at precision, a phrase devised to denote a state that isn’t out-and-out hunger but still something we have to worry about. (If your goal is to eliminate hunger, you have to get rid of food insecurity as well, because a certain number of the food-insecure will become hungry sooner or later.) The proliferation of bureaucratic vocabulary may arise from an honest effort to measure and categorize more precisely, or it may just stem from carelessness and lack of attention. “Food insecurity” is an example of the former, but in everyday use, its sound irritates us. One more clumsy euphemism from the government stock and store, which apparently is as rich as Fort Knox.

food pantry

(1980’s | “soup kitchen,” “food bank”)

A “food pantry” is not really the same thing as a “soup kitchen” or a “food bank.” They do not generally serve hot meals, as a soup kitchen does, and unlike a food bank, they operate at the retail level rather than the wholesale. A food pantry distributes donated supplies to individuals or families. It’s a little like going to the grocery store, except you don’t have to pay and the selection is nowhere near as good. At least nowadays, they are almost always run by private groups: often houses of worship, sometimes unions or community organizations. But nothing prevents the government from running them, as it might maintain homeless shelters.

“Food pantry” used in this sense hardly shows up before the late 1970’s in Google Books; by the mid-1980’s it’s fairly common. Before that it was a mildly redundant way to say “pantry,” mostly used literally. “Pantry” has always struck me as a slightly odd word, but never until I sat down to write this entry did I look up its origin. The word has existed in English since 1300 or so, and it comes from the Old French word for “bread (storage) room.” All this talk of bread reminds me of another fun old word for a place where food is stored, “buttery,” which had nothing to do with butter. The buttery was the storeroom for butts, that is, casks or barrels.

LexisNexis spits out a spate of articles about food pantries’ efforts to alleviate hunger in the early 1980’s. I had trouble thinking of a precise pre-1980 equivalent for this expression, probably because there wasn’t one. (I remember schoolwide canned goods drives in the 1970’s, and my parents delivered food packages to shut-ins.) Before 1980, there were plenty of hungry people who needed help, but they got it in ways that didn’t require them to go to food pantries. If you got food stamps, you went to the store and stocked up. If you subscribed to Meals on Wheels, the food came to you. But a number of trends came together in 1981: unemployment went up as Paul Volcker’s Fed sharply restricted the money supply. That brought down inflation, but it drove up misery. The homeless population increased sharply — partly because a lot of people had recently been released from mental institutions — and started to include many more women and children. And the Reagan administration worked to cut federal aid to the needy, so food stamps were harder to get and bought less. (Reagan and his men also made it respectable to drag out the old canard that a lot of people getting government aid didn’t deserve it because they were lazy. The sneers directed at the poor went right along with tax policies that made life easier for a few at the top and harder for everyone below them, a trend that has continued unabated to this day.) Add it all together, and you had a much larger number of people in need at the very moment government assistance was shrinking. Concerned citizens did what they could to pick up the slack, but a shaky network of small groups dependent on a few active members and local donations lacks the reach and power of a national effort led by the federal government. Reagan succeeded in casting the Great Society into disrepute, but its replacement is much more fragile, much more easily overwhelmed.


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