Saturday, December 20, 2014

Hunger Doesn’t Take a Break

By Jacqueline Mitchell

Government food aid is at an all-time high, even in the midst of an obesity epidemic

Kathleen Merrigan at Tufts

“The magnitude of what we are about to face is heart-stopping,” said Kathleen Merrigan. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Not long after she was sworn in as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan found herself in the situation room at the White House discussing the potential ramifications of the H1N1 influenza outbreak.

“There was a lot of talk about what would happen to the 31 million children who depend on school lunches for nutrition if we had to close the schools for two months at a time,” recalled Merrigan, who was an assistant professor and director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at the Friedman School until 2009. “I said, ‘What do you think happens in summer? Hunger doesn’t take a break.’ ”

Addressing the widespread and growing problem of hunger in the United States is the USDA’s core mission, said Merrigan, who gave the keynote address at the Friedman School’s fifth annual nutrition symposium on November 5. More than 17 million American families struggle to put enough food on the table, according to 2008 statistics from the USDA. “We have elders choosing between buying medicine and buying food,” said Merrigan. “It’s unacceptable.”

Over the course of a year, one in four Americans will receive some form of food aid from the USDA, according to the agency. It spends 70 percent of its $149 billion budget on nutrition assistance, including the school lunch program, Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and disaster relief. In 2010, the agency estimates 45 million Americans—or one in eight of us—received help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). “It’s stunning,” said Merrigan. “And despite growing participation, we know many who are eligible are not enrolled.”

With so much food insecurity, how can America also be in the midst of an obesity epidemic? “It may seem like a policy paradox,” said Merrigan, “but, actually, the root cause of both is lack of access to good, healthy food.”

Fixes for Farmers, Too

To tackle that problem, the Obama administration is paying special attention to what nutritionists call food deserts—rural communities too sparsely populated or urban neighborhoods too poor to support grocery stores. A 2009 report revealed that 23 million low-income Americans who live in such areas buy the bulk of their food at convenience stores, gas stations and liquor stores. “They are paying more for lower quality,” Merrigan said.

The solutions to these complex, intertwined problems lie in innovative strategies. One is to bring mobile food trucks to the rural areas and urban neighborhoods that can’t support brick-and-mortar stores. Another is to reimburse public schools that purchase produce from local growers, delivering healthier foods to school children and boosting the regional economy. “So much of what’s in school meals has local components to it,” Merrigan said. “People are enacting changes at the local level, and I find that quite exhilarating.”

Not every family has a lawyer or an accountant working for them, but every family has farmers who do, supplying all the food for daily meals, Merrigan said. That’s why she spearheaded the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative. It aims to support farmers and revitalize rural America, while protecting natural resources and promoting healthier eating by creating farmer collaboratives and awarding small grants to train novice farmers and assist food banks, for example.

“These farming communities were dying long before this recent economic downturn,” said Merrigan, adding that the average age of American farmers today is 58. “We need to usher in the next generation of people to work our land.”

Like most government agencies, the USDA is feeling the impact of the economic downturn. While the number of Americans receiving assistance through the SNAP program rose from 28 million in 2008 to 45 million this year, Merrigan expects the new Congress in 2011 to cut the USDA budget to back to 2008 levels.

“The magnitude of what we are about to face is heart-stopping,” Merrigan said. “I think we are going to have to think about new ways of doing things, building unusual coalitions, and muscle our way through this.”

Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu.

Posted November 12, 2010