USDA awards $4.5M to vets working in underserved areas

Sonny Ramaswamy, NIFA director--Courtesy of USDA

A full 22 U.S. states are facing a chronic problem: There aren't enough veterinarians in rural areas to keep livestock healthy. So for the second year in a row, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is helping veterinary students defray tuition costs, provided they agree to work in an underserved area for three years.

The USDA said Thursday it is awarding more than $4.5 million to 51 veterinarians under the NIFA program. All 22 states will be able to provide veterinary care to at least one underserved region as a result, according to a USDA press release.

"Veterinarians are choosing to work in locations that offer higher pay in order to pay off their high student loan debts, causing a shortage of veterinarians in rural areas," said Sonny Ramaswamy, NIFA director, in the release. "This program offers loan-repayment assistance to veterinarians, allowing them to work in more rural areas and fill shortages. This ultimately improves the health of livestock and provides a healthy and safe food supply for America."

In addition to taking new applications, NIFA allows previous awardees facing student loan debts of $75,000 or more to apply for renewals. Twelve of this year's award recipients were renewals. The average size of a new award was $98,060, while renewals averaged $62,022, according to the USDA.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization recently estimated that demand for dairy and meat products will grow 60% in the next few decades. But the shortage of veterinarians who treat food animals has long been a problem, particularly in disciplines that require specialty training, such as epidemiology, diagnostic medicine and public health, the USDA says. And there's little doubt the high cost of veterinary school is contributing to the shortage. According to the agency, the average veterinary student these days leaves school with an eye-popping debt burden of $134,470.

- here's the release