USDA Handouts for Hungry Poor Are Poorly Written

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Booklets and handouts intended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help relieve hunger and boost nutrition among poor blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and the elderly are of poor quality and are not aimed at their target audiences, a study has found.

In 2004, more than 38 million people lived in households that experienced some level of what the federal government labels "food insecurity," a recently coined term for hunger that also encompasses not being able to afford nutritionally balanced meals, having to cut portion sizes and skipping meals. Of the total, 13.9 million were children.

The USDA sponsored the printing of materials to help poor people improve their skills at alleviating hunger, including signing onto the food stamp program. But about 40 percent of the eligible population does not request food stamps because of "the lack of information about program eligibility requirements," the study said.

Further, many of the materials could not be understood because they were written at too high a reading level.

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"Among the 27 materials initially identified, 20 were either irrelevant or of low relevance to food security," said the study team at Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center. "Moreover, very few of them were intended for minority populations."

The study appears in the January/February issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Are the materials reaching anybody in their intended audience? According to study co-author Robert John, Ph.D., "whatever is being done is not enough. Hunger in the United States. remains a problem. It has risen each year since 2000, with the exception of last year. On the other hand, there is no single thing that can be done to fix it."

Although many of the nation's poor are black, Hispanic, Native American and elderly, the study found that "the materials lacked cultural relevance for special populations. Almost all materials were intended for the non-Hispanic white general population," although a few did address Hispanics and the elderly.

Reading level for many of the materials was above the fifth-grade level, according to the standard Flesch-Kincaid Readability test. The study recommended "a reading level of fifth grade or lower... for nutrition education materials."

"This paper points out that current USDA nutrition education materials could be improved to make them more helpful for people with limited incomes," said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, described on its Web site as a nationwide faith-based citizens' movement against hunger. "People who struggle to put food on the table could benefit from guidance on how to budget and stretch their food dollars."

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