Global Goal: Reducing Hunger, Ensuring Food Safety and Nutrition

By Derek Brandt

U.S. programs have unique history, provide a nutrition safety net

Food, air and water are necessary for survival. Thus, it comes as no surprise that as the world's population surges toward nine billion by 2050, food is playing a larger part in global health policies than ever before. In fact, food often is the main focus of government legislation and even has its own organization to educate and pass knowledge through the United Nations: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

"The focus is to draw attention to the issues of agriculture- and food scarcity would certainly be one of them," said Tim Carr, professor and interim chair of the Department of in Nutrition and Health Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "Its main goal, really, is to reduce the level of hunger worldwide, but the FAO can only act as a dispensary of knowledge and programs and coordinate the exchange of information and practices among nations. It really doesn't have any policing kind of activities."

The FAO was developed and created in the mid-1940s. The organization was intended originally to provide agricultural oversight and address related concerns. Once World War II began, it became more urgent to create an agency with the United Nations that would have more credibility. The FAO, though, does not develop policies for other nations. Nations retain responsibility for creating their own policies. The FAO is simply a guide that can help move a nation toward appropriate legislation.

"The FAO does not create legislation. It can't," Carr said. "It can only make recommendations and share the knowledge of what is successful in one country with other countries. In doing that, it will create conferences and it will hold sessions throughout the year and get people to come together and simply talk and discuss what programs have been working, which ones aren't so successful."

Successful U.S. nutrition programs

fresh produce standThough the FAO lends a helping hand toward successful implementation of food-related policies, it is still up to the countries themselves to create the policies. Some examples of programs that are seeing successful implementation in the United States include the federally-funded school breakfast and lunch program and the supplemental nutrition assistance program (formerly known as the food stamp program).

"The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) targets a special, needy group," Carr said. "So people that fit a low-income category are certainly the target of these programs and can benefit greatly from them."

The WIC program serves those who don't meet a maximum monthly allowance and provides help to those women, infants and children at nutritional health risk. WIC, along with the food stamps program and the school lunch program, are the largest federally-funded programs nationwide. Each state in the U.S. has a varying number of its own policies that are implemented, pending or dead. The United States also holds another key to successful policy implementation and infrastructure.

"In the United States, we have a very well-developed road system and rail system," Carr said. "We have a very well-developed agricultural production system and so guarding against large fluctuations in food availability is what most of these policies really target. So in our country, we have food available yearround. We have an abundant, wholesome, and available- for the most part- food system."

Global infrastructure and other concerns

In some underdeveloped countries, such as Uganda, policies and infrastructure are poorly developed and have a negative impact on food supply, Carr said. Outside of the U.S., large fluctuations in the food supply occur much more often, since the sources of transportation can be less reliable. They also are more susceptible to crop failure and flooding or other natural disasters. Without adequate and complete infrastructure, people may suffer from a less-reliable food distribution system.

In some cases, depending on population and available arable land, these underdeveloped countries simply may not be able to produce enough food. This causes the country to rely on imports. This reliance impacts the money supply and strains the country's economy. According to Carr, the assistance of other nations in these situations is essential and the FAO may step in and direct the more stable countries to help out.

"Countries that are more developed, they are better economically-able to provide assistance to the countries that are struggling," Carr said. "So it is an area where the FAO now can play a big part by getting the right people connected to the people in need."

U.S. food policy and research, from vitamins to the school lunch program

Carr said the United States has been one of the world's leaders in nutrition policy and research. According to Carr, the past 100 years has been crucial to developing policies, not just for the United States, but for the entire world.

"The United States was one of the first to draft legislation aimed at improving the food supply," Carr said. "In 1906, the Food and Drugs Act was adopted and this was the first case where laws were being developed that required that certain standards were met. And then over the years, for example in 1941, was the year that the school lunch program was initiated. There are many other events that have happened over the years that represent some of the first attempts at ensuring that people had a safe and adequate food supply."

The United States also was among the first to look at the relationships of nutrients to deficiency diseases that occurred because of a lack of those nutrients. The discovery of vitamins also dominated the field of nutrition in the early 20th century.

"I think the first vitamin, aptly named Vitamin A, was discovered around 1906," Carr said. "By about 1950, all of the essential vitamins had been discovered and a lot of that work originated in the United States."

Changing lifestyle requires improved nutrition

Though the United States has been a leader over the years in research and policy implementation, there still is room for improvement. Pockets of the United States still experience a scarcity of food, while part of the population is obese. Those are two areas in which Carr feels like the United States needs to improve. There is a link between low-income families and obesity. One of the main questions is: How do we reconcile those disparities?

"We have gone from a nation of preparing our own food at home to a nation of food that has been prepared by somebody else and in doing that, our food supply has become more enriched in high starch, high-fat kinds of choices," Carr said. "Starch and fat are abundant and cheap. And so the research has shown that low-income families, when they need to find food, tend to buy that which is most cheap and most abundant. Consequently, that can lead to obesity. That is a simple explanation and it is of course much more complex than that and this is where much of the research effort is focused at this time."


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