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Outlining Solutions To Help End Hunger

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we want to focus on solutions to the problem of food insecurity in America. We spent a lot of time today highlighting the problems around how people get food or don't get food and the effect that this has on them. But now we want to focus on what better approaches might look like.

To help us think this through, we are joined now by Ertharin Cousin, who's had a long career thinking about these issues. She previously served as a U.S. ambassador for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and executive director of the World Food Program. She's currently the CEO of Food Systems for the Future, which invests in food and agriculture services to improve nutrition in low-income communities. And she's a visiting scholar at the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University. And she is with us now.

Welcome, ambassador Cousin. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

ERTHARIN COUSIN: I am honored by the privilege to spend time with you.

MARTIN: So one of the sustainable development goals adopted at the UN in 2015 is zero hunger, with a target of ending hunger and malnutrition globally by the year 2030. So when people talk about zero hunger, what does that mean?

COUSIN: That means everyone everywhere would have sufficient access to affordable, nutritious food to meet their dietary requirements. And it is possible.

MARTIN: You've written a lot about the fact that often this issue arises, you know, from conflict, like war. But as we've learned and as we've been talking about throughout this hour, this is a problem in the United States, too. So what are one or two things that would make our food systems here in the United States more equitable, would bring us closer to ending hunger here?

COUSIN: When we talk about food security, we're also talking about nutrition. And when you have the malnutrition problem in the United States, which is obesity and the health consequences that occur from that, what we've realized as a result of COVID is that we have our own set of malnutrition and food-related problems in the United States that are directly related to a food system that does not meet the needs of low-income and underserved populations.

But we can - even here in the United States, we can do things that will change that paradigm. We focus on the charitable system. And we should have a charitable system that responds to emergencies, that ensures that people have access to food. But we also need to invest in businesses that can provide access to nutritious foods that people - giving people the ability to purchase the food that they need to meet their requirements and not just stand in line for a box.

MARTIN: Are there things that individuals can do if they don't, you know, own a farm, if they don't, you know, sit on a board of directors? Is there something that people who are listening to our conversation right now could do to help solve this problem?

COUSIN: There are food policy action councils that have sprung up all around the country that your listeners should Google and get involved. There are also new farm-to-consumer systems coming online that will allow for purchase directly from farmers that will make our system more agile by giving people the ability to purchase food that's closer to them. We also have new laws coming on the books that allow for the consumers who are entrepreneurs to begin to develop their own food products and sell them at farmer's markets.

What we'll find as we move forward is that people getting involved with their food and knowing the system, knowing who their farmer is, where that food is produced is going to create a different demand for food in our society that will result in ever more nutritious food becoming available.

MARTIN: You know, the complexity of this - of these issues that - again, the whole question of poverty and hunger, you know, global conflict, et cetera, may make some people feel, like, hopeless - like nothing will work. Is there anything you can share - like a story, maybe a personal experience - that helped you to understand that solutions to this problem are possible?

COUSIN: When I was executive director of the World Food Program, I never took pictures with babies with flies on their eyes and bloated bellies because we've all gotten far too accustomed to seeing that as the face of poverty and hunger. But what I witnessed were men and women who were working as smallholder farmers, as entrepreneurs to provide for the food needs of their children as well as for the markets that they supported them, provided them with income.

And so what I always did was take pictures with fat, healthy babies to demonstrate to the world what was possible when the investments were made that allowed people to support their own food needs by creating the businesses, creating the agricultural production, supporting the systems that would ensure the availability of affordable, nutritious food. That demonstrated that we could change the outcomes for people by helping them change their own lives.

MARTIN: Ambassador Ertharin Cousin is CEO of Food Systems for the Future. She's also a visiting scholar at the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University. And she previously served as executive director of the UN's World Food Program from 2012 until 2017.

Ertharin Cousin, Ambassador Cousin, thank you so much for joining us today.

COUSIN: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF IDRIS MUHAMMAD'S "LORAN'S DANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.