After years of staying under the radar, America's hunger crisis is now becoming a growing reality for many people. One in six Americans goes to bed every night with empty stomachs. Hunger now exists in every county in America. Poverty is forcing millions into a hunger emergency called food insecurity -- the inability to know where your next meal is coming from. Families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food or cutting meals out entirely and putting their health at risk. Physical and cognitive impairment can develop. But America's problem isn't a lack of food; it's the ability to maintain food security -- provide plenty of nutritious, safe, affordable food for everyone.
America's biggest challenge is that we need to provide easy, ongoing access to healthy food-like fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, and eggs. Approximately 13.5 million people live in areas where healthy food is inaccessible. The USDA estimates that 82 percent of these "food deserts" can be found in the low-income areas of our biggest cities.
Public Health Threat
Hunger is a major public health threat. Residents in food deserts generally choose fast-food options or go to corner grocery stores. Empty calorie processed foods are substantially cheaper and far more accessible. As a result, obesity has become inextricably connected to hunger. In fact, one in three children is obese in America and one in four is hungry. The irony is that these children appear as if they are over nourished. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. They aren't receiving the proper nutrition. Many of these children have trouble functioning in school -- they can't concentrate, fall asleep, and are sick on a regular basis. With 17 million children food insecure, the chronic health consequences requiring long-term health care are enormous. The cost of this threat to the US economy in terms of healthcare is a staggering $167 billion a year.So what can we do as a nation? Who can we turn to for help?
A Vital Role
Veterinary medicine is the profession that is intimately tied to food safety and production. Veterinarians help ensure egg, cattle, swine, and poultry safety, including the spread of infectious diseases in animals. They also provide guidance to farmers on modern farming production like the herd health program which checks the efficiency of milking machines, as well as waste management, reproductive efficiency, and immunization programs. Access to protein-rich foods is crucial because a lack of milk, meat and eggs can lead to malnourishment. Vets can have a direct and positive effect on malnourishment.
In the developed world, the lives and economics of farming are complicated by emerging and increasing societal concerns about the environmental impact of farming and the quality of life of the animals who produce our food. Veterinarians have a crucial role to play in translating between the cultures of the farmer to the consumer. In our rapidly urbanizing world, only 2 percent of our population provides the food for the other 98 percent, so most people have absolutely no connection to how food is produced. The risk for feeding low-income urban populations is that the pressure to implement new methods may force the cost of animal-source foods ever higher -- or even worse, might force animal food production abroad. India is now the #1 producer of milk in the world, and Brazil is producing more and more beef.
If we wish to solve our food insecurity problem and have a productive domestic food animal industry, we need veterinarians to help to translate between the cultures of urban well-to-do who are politically active and the farmers (and low-income consumers) who may be accidentally left out of the conversation. We can indeed innovate, as for example the Penn Vet school has in introducing its "Penn gestation" husbandry system -- a crate-free way of caring for sows that has become the fastest-growing new way to raise swine in Pennsylvania and is leading the way to showing farmers how to manage sows in an economically sustainable fashion while documenting the animal welfare impact. Many major food companies are requiring this practice now.
The U.S. government helps our silent crisis by providing food stamps -- one out of four children receive food stamps, but it's impossible to "eat healthy" on five dollars a day. Approximately 40,000 charitable organizations like food banks, soup kitchens, and food pantries fill in the gaps but this support isn't sufficient and isn't the long term answer.
Solutions are possible even though the majority of our food deserts are located in our largest cities. With the "eating local" movement growing, farmers markets are popping up in food-desert neighborhoods in our cities. Farmers are bringing in fresh, healthy food and results have been positive. Cities are also planting fruit trees and starting urban gardens in empty lots. This helps neighborhoods develop an interest in nutrition and eating healthy food as well as building a sense of self-sufficiency.
But education is crucial. Low-income families are accustomed to eating junk foods and transitioning to healthy foods may be difficult. New tastes and smells may be discarded at first. Also, diets high in sugar and corn syrup are addictive and like any addiction very hard to break. Affordability and availability are important factors and incentives/promotions need to be considered. We should also consider raising animals as part of our urban culture, especially fish and fowl. Aquaculture is a very viable solution and chickens could be as well.
We need to develop a comprehensive, collaborative plan. Reform is imperative. Our Government must re-examine its subsidy programs. We can increase livestock management as well as the capacity for the production and distribution of healthy and affordable foods. Community support on both the city and local level is also crucial. Veterinarians, business leaders, public decision-makers, public health officials, and city planners need to take a stand and find new ways for America to move towards food security.
Christina Weiss Lurie is an Oscar-winning producer -- whose latest documentary, "A Place at the Table," illuminates the hunger crisis in America -- and president of Eagles Youth Partnership, Eagles Social Responsibility.
Joan C. Hendricks, VMD, PhD., is the Gilbert S. Kahn Dean of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.