Ending hunger and improving nutrition for all Americans must become national priorities if the United States wants to control health-care costs and reduce the federal deficit, U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., told an audience of about 200 people on Oct. 24 at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University.
McGovern, who chairs the House Hunger Caucus, has long been a champion of nutrition policy aimed at eliminating domestic hunger. “When they say, ‘We can’t afford to spend any more money combating hunger,’ I respond, ‘We can’t afford not to, because hunger results in a lot of costs.’ ”
Hunger and poor nutrition incur direct health-care costs, he said, because they contribute to chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Obesity alone costs the United States an estimated $147 billion each year in medical expenditures and lost productivity, according to research cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But hunger also takes a more subtle economic toll, said McGovern. An empty stomach makes it hard to pay attention at school or at work. Pointing to the “Breakfast to Bell” school meal program in Worcester, Mass., McGovern said, “Kids have a meal, and guess what? They get better test results, and teachers report better behavior. Want better education results? Nutrition is part of that discussion.”
“I’ve been pushing this for four years,” McGovern said, referring to his yet-unfulfilled request that President Obama convene a conference to develop a plan to eliminate hunger and improve nutrition for all Americans.
In 1969, President Nixon appointed then Tufts President Jean Mayer, an internationally known nutritionist for whom the HNRCA is named, to chair the first such White House conference, which helped establish the food stamp program. (During his 16-year tenure at Tufts, Mayer founded the only graduate school of nutrition in the country and launched a campaign that secured a congressional appropriation to build the HNRCA on the Boston campus in 1982.)
“Hunger is a reality not just halfway around the world, but halfway down the block,” said McGovern. A 2011 study conducted by the USDA Economic Research Service described about 18 million American households as “food insecure” because they experienced some difficulty obtaining enough to eat at some point during the year.
More than a third of these households, almost seven million, experienced food insecurity for an average of seven months out of the year. Despite these numbers, which have risen sharply since 2008, some members of Congress are proposing to cut the federal food assistance program by $16 billion over the next 10 years.
McGovern, who sits on the House Committee on Agriculture, argued against the proposed cuts, and said he was dismayed by some of his colleagues’ attitudes toward the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which falls under the auspices of the Farm Bill.
“It was stunning, the ignorance and the contempt some people had for this program,” he said. “The Government Accountability Office says SNAP is one of the most efficiently run programs in the federal government. We need to push back, so when somebody says something that’s wrong, ignorant, we need to correct the record.”
That’s where researchers like those at the HNRCA and Tufts come in, he said. “You are the leaders in the world. The research that comes out of here is the basis for a lot of the progress we have made up to this point and will be the basis for how we move forward.”
That research can tell us not just how to live longer, but how to live better, said McGovern. Preventing or curing Alzheimer’s disease alone would “ensure not just that millions wouldn’t have to go through that misery, but also that Medicaid would never have a fiscal problem again. Alzheimer’s is one of our biggest health-care burdens in this country.”
First elected to Congress in 1996, McGovern represents Massachusetts’ Third Congressional District, which is home to 28 towns and cities, including Worcester, Attleboro and Fall River. He first became passionate about hunger and nutrition and public policy as an intern working for U.S. Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D. (no relation), who became his political mentor and lifelong friend.
“Combating hunger is still not part of our public policy in a way that I think is meaningful,” McGovern said. “We need to demonstrate impatience with the next administration if we’re going to get this done,” he said. “In the richest country on the planet, nobody ought to go hungry.”
Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com.