By Christina Weiss Lurie and Joan C. Hendricks
After years of being under the radar, America's hunger crisis is becoming a growing reality for many people. One in six Americans goes to bed every night with empty stomachs. Poverty is forcing millions into "food insecurity" - the inability to know where your next meal is coming from. Families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food or cutting meals entirely.
The problem is not a lack of food; it's the inability to provide nutritious, safe, affordable food for everyone.
Approximately 13.5 million people live in areas where healthy food - fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, and eggs - is inaccessible. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 82 percent of these "food deserts" are in the low-income areas of our biggest cities.
Residents in food deserts generally must opt for fast food or empty-calorie processed food from corner grocers. As a result, obesity has become inextricably connected to hunger. One in three children is obese in America and one in four is hungry. The irony is that these children appear over- nourished, but 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 food-insecure children, the chronic health consequences are enormous. The cost of this threat to the U.S. economy in terms of health care is a staggering $167 billion a year.
Where can we turn for help?
One area is veterinary medicine, which is intimately tied to food safety and production. Veterinarians help ensure egg, cattle, swine, and poultry safety. They also provide guidance on modern farming production, as well as waste management, reproductive efficiency, and immunization programs.
The economics of agriculture are becoming increasingly complicated by growing concerns about the environmental impact of farming and the quality of life of animals raised on farms. In addition, 2 percent of our population provides the food for the other 98 percent, so most people have no connection to how food is produced. They may not understand that the pressure to implement new farming methods may force the cost of animal-source foods ever higher - or, worse, force animal-food production abroad. India is now the No. 1 producer of milk in the world.
If we wish to solve our food insecurity problem and have a productive domestic animal industry, we need veterinarians to help translate between the urban well-to-do who are politically active and the farmers (and low-income consumers) who may be left out of the conversation. We can indeed innovate, as for example what the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine has with its "Penn gestation" husbandry system - a crate-free way of caring for sows that has become the fastest-growing method of raising swine in Pennsylvania. The system shows 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.
Of course, the U.S. government is also addressing our food crisis by providing food stamps. The families of one out of four children receives food stamps, but it's impossible to "eat healthy" on $5 a day. About 40,000 food banks, soup kitchens, food pantries, and other organizations try to fill the gaps, but this support isn't sufficient and isn't a long-term answer.
The "eating local" movement is helping the food desert issue, with farmers' markets popping up in our cities. Farmers are bringing in fresh, healthy food and the 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 build a sense of self-sufficiency.
More education is crucial. Transitioning to healthy foods may be difficult. 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 and 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, too.
What we need, then, is a comprehensive, collaborative plan. Reform is imperative. Our government must reexamine 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, decision-makers, public health officials, and city planners need to find new ways for America to move toward food security.