“Hunger is a big problem in this country. It is a big problem all over the world, but it is a big problem in the United States of America. Over 40 million people are hungry,” which as “the richest country in the history of the world, I find it totally unacceptable,” McGovern told attendees at the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit in Washington, DC, this month.
Since joining Congress in 1996, McGovern said he has “encountered hungry families on a regular basis and, if you have ever seen a child who is hungry, it breaks your heart. And it just doesn’t have to be.”
That is why, he said, he helped bring back the Hunger Caucus and in January helped create the Food Is Medicine Working Group.
“Hunger is a political condition. We have the knowledge, we have the food, we have everything it takes to solve the problem, but we don’t have the political will. And so we formed [the Hunger Caucus] to try and educate our members – democrats and republicans alike – about what the reality of hunger is, about what the programs that exist are and whether there are innovative things going on throughout the country, and, hopefully, compel people to do something to take action to end hunger once and for all,” he said.
‘A million different innovative programs’
McGovern said he wants to create a US conference on food, nutrition and hunger so that players across the food safety net and community, including schools, hospitals, food banks and others can share their initiatives and best practices to improve access to food and nutrition education.
“There are a million different innovative programs … to make sure people have access to nutrition,” and learn healthy habits, but all too often they are done at a small scale and if shared could impact exponentially more people, he said.
For example, he noted in his home state of Massachusetts, legislators and health advocates are trying to institutionalize breakfast before the bell at schools so that all students will start the day with a healthy meal.
“My two sisters are school teachers and they will argue that breakfast and lunch is every bit as important to a child’s ability to learn as a text book, and yet if they don’t provide breakfast at the bell for everybody, many kids won’t eat breakfast,” he said.
“We are also trying to encourage our schools to take and integrate nutrition lessons in math and science. It is unrealistic to think schools could create and teach a whole course on nutrition, but we can weave those lessons together. And I am big believer that learning healthy habits when you are young is easier than when you are old,” he said.
McGovern added that nutrition doesn’t just need to be taught to school children, but also to medical professionals.
“Our medical schools ought to be teaching nutrition more. And I am always amazed when I talk to medical students that they don’t take nutrition courses or it is not in their curriculum,” he said, adding that maybe if the medical board included nutrition questions on the certification exams, more students would focus on it in school.
McGovern also said he would like to see medical institutions and community health centers have food banks on location so that doctors could more easily prescribe food – rather than pharmaceuticals -- as medicine for ailments.
“Our strategy with this working group … and others is actually to try and help flesh out a plan and maybe ignite some innovation pilots to promote food prescriptions, for example, and try to find ways to get them reimbursed,” he said, adding, “I personally think Medicare ought to reimburse for those things and one of the things Congress ought to do is a project to see if it works, which I think it will, and then expand the coverage to those kinds of prescriptions, because I would much rather prescribing healthy medicine than expensive food.”
McGovern’s ideas and the efforts by the Medicine is Food Working Group not only could help decrease the healthcare costs through prevention based on a nutritious diet, but could also create marketing opportunities for the burgeoning personalized nutrition market, as well as the more established medically tailored meals market.