What if we realized that food security is homeland security?
I’m waiting for my flight home from the 1,000 Days U.S. Leadership Roundtable, a spectacular meeting that was held today at the Gates Foundation in Washington, DC. Stakeholders in nutrition and maternal-child health gathered to discuss how we can galvanize support for nutrition during the 1,000 days from conception to age 2. This is the time when our youngest citizens build their bodies and brains, laying the foundation for long-term health. Investing in optimal nutrition during these crucial days improves health and productivity across a lifetime.
For too many of our children, however, this foundation is fractured. Poverty, food insecurity, and commercial pressures prevent moms and babies from achieving their full potential. During the meeting, 1,000 Days executive director Lucy Sullivan shared daunting statistics about the challenges facing children in America. One in eight infants and toddlers in the US lives in deep poverty, defined as less than half the poverty line. Food insecurity affects 20% of families with children under 6. One in 20 children – 5% — experience very low food security, defined as multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. This food insecurity has lasting consequences, leading to chronic diseases, impaired school performance, and, paradoxically, increased risk of obesity.
Breastfeeding is one of the single best preventive health measures for mothers and children, Sullivan said, but families in poverty are less likely to initiate or sustain breastfeeding. The barrier is not lack of information – it is lack of support and policies that enable mothers to initiate and sustain breastfeeding, especially in areas with high rates of poverty and racial disparities.
How can this be, in one of the wealthiest nations in the world? As one roundtable participant noted, we don’t think of food insecurity as a problem in America, and certainly not as a threat to our nation’s future.
This contrast between homeland and food security became quite literal for me as I arrived at airport security. I dutifully removed my boots, coat, sweater, and scarf and held my arms up for a body scan, and a cadre of security officers inspected my driver’s license and x-rayed my carry-on luggage. My fellow travelers similarly stripped and underwent careful inspection.
After I reassembled my personal possessions, I walked into the women’s rest room and noticed the “nursing lounge,” a bathroom stall equipped a power outlet, a changing table, and a low bench littered with trash. These were the accommodations for lactating air travelers to express milk.
Now, I recognize that the TSA has a more prominent role in an airport than early childhood nutrition promotion. But the contrast parallels real differences in our commitments as a nation. The total budget authority of the Department of Homeland Security is $60 billion for 2014. WIC’s budget for nutrition education, preventative services, and promotion of immunization and breastfeeding is $1.9 billion.
Perhaps more tellingly, although we may grumble about the inconvenience of placing our liquids, gels and aerosols in quart-sized plastic bags for review, we do it. We all accept that we need to do our part for Homeland Security. What if we were willing to take similar steps to ensure food security for every family? What if we devoted our energy to breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty and undernutrition with the same zeal that we’ve tackled the threat of terrorism?
The first 1,000 days are a critical time for growing families. Nutrition and caregiving build the neural scaffolding that will enable a child to grow up, flourish, and thrive. If we continue to relegate 1 in 8 children to deep poverty and food insecurity, we will stunt their physical and emotional health and constrain their horizons. Yet if we commit to invest in families and children, we’ll nourish a generation that will be the leaders and innovators of the future.
The Department of Homeland Security’s vision is “Preserving our freedoms, protecting America …we secure our homeland.” Let’s commit to protect our families, feed our children, and secure our future.
Alison Stuebe, MD, MSc, is a maternal-fetal medicine physician, breastfeeding researcher, and assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. She is a member of the board of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. You can follow her on Twitter at @astuebe.
Posts on this blog reflect the opinions of individual ABM members, not the organization as a whole.