Does anyone know if people die of starvation in the United States?
March 19, 2010 10:54 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone know if people die of starvation in the United States?

I seem to often come across articles about food banks running out of food, and a record number of people applying for food stamps.

This from 2008
Of the 49.1 million people living in food insecure households (up from 36.2 million in 2007), 32.4 million are adults (14.4 percent of all adults) and 16.7 million are children (22.5 percent of all children).
17.3 million people lived in households that were considered to have "very low food security," a USDA term (previously denominated "food insecure with hunger") that means one or more people in the household were hungry over the course of the year because of the inability to afford enough food. This was up from 11.9 million in 2007 and 8.5 million in 2000.
Very low food security had been getting worse even before the recession. The number of people in this category in 2008 is more than double the number in 2000.
Black (25.7 percent) and Hispanic (26.9 percent) households experienced food insecurity at far higher rates than the national average.

Apparently the CDC does not track deaths from starvation, or rather they call it malnutrition.

So I know there are lot of people hurting out there, and as the economic trouble keeps on holding people down the numbers are getting worse day by day.

I also know that we give away in aid, tons and tons of food, which would not make sense if people were starving.

I know that a lot of people are dependent on federal, state and local programs to eat.

But do people in the United States in 2010 starve to death?
posted by digividal to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Do those stricken with forms of anorexia count?
posted by kellyblah at 10:55 AM on March 19, 2010

Some anorexics starve themselves to death. Some Americans are anorexic. Therefore, the easy answer to your question is: "probably."
posted by dfriedman at 10:57 AM on March 19, 2010

I read a few stories about children being starved to death in the US by their mentally ill parents. And there's also undernutrition which can be fatal.
posted by anniecat at 10:57 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would think that probably some homeless people do.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:57 AM on March 19, 2010

I think it's pretty obvious that the OP wants to know if people die from not being able to get enough food because they can't afford it, not because of mental illness.
posted by amethysts at 11:01 AM on March 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I had not thought about anorexia, and I can see how that would cause it,
and that is a tragedy.
However amethysts is correct and eloquent about my the intent of my question.
posted by digividal at 11:05 AM on March 19, 2010

Apparently the CDC does not track deaths from starvation, or rather they call it malnutrition.

Starvation is malnutrition for all effects. If you're malnourished, then your body is not working properly.
posted by anniecat at 11:08 AM on March 19, 2010

Not to be contrarian to the OP and to amethysts, but I suspect that it may be difficult to disentangle the two in some cases. Are there people who don't have enough to eat? Yes. Are there plentiful resources for those who wish to eat? Yes. For someone to out-and-out die of starvation in the United States probably requires a very high degree of ignorance and isolation or some kind of mental illness that inhibits one's ability to avail oneself of these services and resources.
posted by proj at 11:09 AM on March 19, 2010

Yes. And it is (from my recollection) usually infants. This could be due to lack of access to food, but I usually hear about it in the context of child abuse (grossly neglectful parents). Sorry, I don't have the links, but it is tragic.

Technically, I think that starvation is malnutrition. When a person dies of starvation, it isn't due to lack of food, per se, but lack of nutrients (vitamins, glucose, protein). So I think you need to look at what your definition of "starvation" is. I think that the CDC definition of "malnutrition" might be very close to what you are looking for, when it is in the context of death.
posted by jabberjaw at 11:13 AM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yes, caveat to my reply above is that it applies to individuals who are not under the care of another.
posted by proj at 11:14 AM on March 19, 2010

Yeah, I agree that this question also requires a follow-up question to level out the implications of the answer.

Do people starve to death in the United States? Yes.
Are these starvation deaths caused be a lack of easy access to food? Probably not.
posted by Willie0248 at 11:16 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not to be contrarian to the OP and to amethysts...

I don't think you're being contrarian -- I think you've basically answered the OP's question, at least as I'm interpreting it.

The OP seems to be interested in a particular category: people who die in the US simply because not enough adequate food is actually available to them. It's not the role of AskMe to judge whether that's the category the OP should be concerned with, just as it's not our role to say the OP should be more concerned with, say, starvation in Africa than in the US.

I don't know the answer, but based on the comments here, it seems like no one belongs to the category the OP is asking about aside from dependents whose parents are neglecting or abusing them. That sounds like fundamentally a parenting problem, and the child's lack of access to food is a product of the fact that kids aren't generally capable of getting food on their own.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:22 AM on March 19, 2010

To clarify a bit, the answer to the question "Do people in the United States ever die from malnutrition" is "Every day."

The answer to the question "Do people in the United States ever die from malnutrition chiefly as a result of not being able to afford food as opposed to other, less purely economic reasons," the answer is "Not really" or at least "Not very often."

Dying from straight-up lack of food actually takes a bit of doing. An otherwise healthy adult who starts out reasonably well-fed can go around thirty days without eating anything, but you can be undernourished for quite some time without dying from it. Major malnutritional disorders like kwashiorkor, scurvy, and pellagra generally involve not getting enough of a particular nutrient, and you can be drastically under-nourished while avoiding them.

In the US, actually dying from lack of food is quite rare and generally involves other problems. If a person is incapable of feeding themselves, either because they're too young or infirm, lack of care can easily lead to starvation. This happens far too often, but doesn't generally indicate that the caretaker was unable to afford food as much as they were negligent or worse. A person who is mentally ill--as far too many of the homeless are--may wind up starving to death, but again, access to food isn't necessarily the primary problem there. There are sufficient shelters, soup kitchens, and hospitals in most communities that a person who truly has no money can keep body and soul together for an indefinite period provided they actually eat every few days.

As a purely economic situation, starvation does not really exist in any significant way in the US today.

Note that this is different from "food insecurity," which is a defined term. One will suffer from food insecurity if one's access to food is simply irregular, but again, this does not necessarily mean that one is in any danger of immediate starvation. An otherwise healthy person--that is, one without something like a serious metabolic disorder--can probably afford to miss up to half of his meals for quite an extended period before suffering any permanent ill effects. This isn't likely to be pleasant, but it isn't particularly dangerous either. The USDA doesn't even really have a category for someone whose access to food is so irregular that they're truly at risk of dying from lack of it.

Not trying to downplay the problem of hunger. It's a real problem. Just trying to answer what seems to be a quite narrow question.
posted by valkyryn at 11:34 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

2008 Minnesota Health Statistics, General Mortality, PDF, from the MN Dept. of Health.

For that year, there are 38 deaths listed under 'nutritional deficiencies', 29 of those specifically 'malnutrition', the rest 'other'. However, those are in the 'diseases and conditions' area, so I'm not confident in exactly what goes under these headings.

In perspective, the 'all causes' total in the chart is 38,431.
posted by gimonca at 12:15 PM on March 19, 2010

I personally know of Mothers who eat too little because they know that there is not enough food for their families. Some skip a meal or two, some just claim not to be that hungry, but there are at least two that I personally know who do those things because they are afraid that when they eat they are taking food from their kids. They eat enough not to starve, but nowhere near as many calories as they should. If I know two then I am sure there are a lot more out there doing the same thing. (One of these Mom's started eating better when her family qualified for food stamps, the other doesn't qualify.)

There are children in our area who only eat at school. They often go hungry over the weekends. I've heard of programs to combat this, things like sending the kids home with easy to fix meals in a backpack on Fridays and free school lunches over the summer.
posted by TooFewShoes at 1:21 PM on March 19, 2010

TooFewShoes nails exactly what I was trying to get at: there's plenty of people in the US who are hungry, but they're hungry in a long-term way that doesn't generally involve the impending threat of actual starvation. This is a problem, but it's different in degree, if not in kind, from the sorts of widespread famine one sees in Africa, which is still where the vast majority of people who starve to death do so.
posted by valkyryn at 1:25 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The official phrases you want to search for are "food security" and "food insecurity." From wikipedia "Food security refers to the availability of food and one's access to it. A household is considered food secure when its occupants do not live in hunger or fear of starvation."

From the US Dept. of Agriculture you can read this report. It says "In 2008, 85 percent of U.S. households were food secure throughout the entire year, and 14.6 percent of households were food insecure at least some time during that year, up from 11.1 percent in 2007. This is the highest recorded prevalence rate of food insecurity since 1995 when the first national food security survey was conducted."
posted by JackFlash at 2:45 PM on March 19, 2010

This is the highest recorded prevalence rate of food insecurity since 1995 when the first national food security survey was conducted.

This sounds like a somewhat misleading statistic; the US economy since 1995 has, but for the pas 1.5 years, been pretty good. I would like to see a comparison of "food insecurity" today as compared to the depths of the Great Depression, or, more realistically, since the introduction of mechanized agriculture and the industrial revolution. Such data likely are not available, however.
posted by dfriedman at 3:08 PM on March 19, 2010

Apparently the CDC does not track deaths from starvation, or rather they call it malnutrition

Those icd-10 codes are mostly what you would think of as starvation. They include protein deficiency as well as overall calories, but those records will be proximate cause of death. If you starve to death because you get trapped or are an abandoned baby you go in that tally.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:18 PM on March 19, 2010

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