The Field Report

The Field Report: Big Questions Linger About The White House Conference on Hunger

Published by
Lisa Held

Since May, when President Biden announced the White House would host the first conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health since 1969, policymakers and advocacy groups have been talking up the importance of the event.

Representative Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), who had been pushing for the conference for at least a year prior, said it had the potential to be “transformational” in the context of ending hunger. Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) called it a “tremendous opportunity” to improve nutrition, especially for low-income communities of color. The American Heart Association presented it as “an opportunity to change the trajectory of health.”

However, with the conference now just a week away, details about what will actually happen there are scant, and many people are frustrated by the lack of transparency and the lack of any clear expectations about what the conference aims to achieve.

Here’s what we know so far.

On Wednesday, September 28, the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health will take place at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. Given the lack of mass invites to date, it looks like it will mainly be a gathering of select policymakers and D.C. insiders. A livestream will be available for everyone else, and the White House is encouraging people to host satellite events to watch it, although it gave very little notice for any groups that might want to organize one. Only a handful of events have been posted on the website so far.

According to a bare-bones agenda, a five-pillar national strategy will be presented, with “remarks from Administration Officials and presentations highlighting innovative solutions to address hunger and improve nutrition and physical activity.” The event’s organizers have not shared who those officials will be or anything else about the national strategy other than the pillars that are outlined on the website: improve food access and affordability, integrate nutrition and health, empower all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices, support physical activity for all, and enhance nutrition and food security research.

Leading up to the conference, the administration has quietly solicited public input. In addition, a wide range of experts, advocacy groups, lawmakers, and industry groups delivered unsolicited comments and suggestions.

The most vocal group offering up advice has been the Task Force on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health led by Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and made up of representatives from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Food Systems for the Future, and World Central Kitchen. That group held a series of listening sessions and policy convenings around the country—which were all closed to the public and to press—and then compiled a report that it delivered to the White House in August.

In that report, the group laid out detailed policy changes that could be made across several key areas, including suggestions to improve access to and participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC), and school meals, increase attention to diet in healthcare settings, invest in nutrition science, and incentivize the production and sale of healthier foods.

And many of the policy changes the report called for overlap with comments submitted by other groups. For example, a wide range of hunger and nutrition advocates have been pushing to make school meals free for all students over the past year, and that priority was echoed in recommendations submitted by both the Food Research and Action Center and FoodCorps. (At the moment, however, it’s looking like Republicans will be able to defeat a last-ditch effort by Democrats to get universal school meals into a funding bill.)

While the conference is being organized by the Department of Health and Human Services, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has expressed enthusiasm about the event and said the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be very involved. Many of the USDA’s current priorities around issues like increasing enrollment in and modernizing WIC and emphasizing the intersection of hunger and nutrition are reflected in comments submitted by advocacy groups.

Meanwhile, a handful of agriculture groups are trying to get the conference to consider how farm policy—not just hunger and nutrition policy—impacts health. Farm Action’s recommendations include shifting farm bill subsidies away from processed foods and cheap animal feed and toward fruit, vegetables, and other more nutrient-dense crops and helping farms transition away from chemical-intensive systems that impact public health.

Last week, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and partners published a conference memo that called for similar changes and other shifts in agricultural policy like supporting diversified food systems. “The bottom line is that we cannot have healthy people without healthy farming, and healthy farming requires a healthy planet. We reap what we sow,” they wrote. “We must seize the opportunity to transform the U.S. food and agricultural system to address hunger, nutrition, and disease.”

The memo also emphasized the need for a “social and racial justice lens” across food and farm policies. It’s a point that Tambra Raye Stevenson, founder of WANDA, has been making in calling for more attention to inequity in food and nutrition policies, and the lack of representation of Black women specifically, in conversations leading up to the conference.

Finally, nonprofits are not the only ones trying to shape the conference agenda. As is to be expected, powerful food companies and trade groups have been working to influence the White House’s final strategy. The seafood industry is lobbying for increased attention to seafood’s health benefits, and the chicken industry is arguing that cheap chicken can fill protein and other nutrient gaps for food insecure populations. FoodFix compiled a helpful database of all the corporate comments (alongside advocacy group comments) submitted, including from the Sugar Association and the North American Meat Institute.

In the end, for all of the talk of the conference’s importance, all of the reports and comments submitted in advance, and the industry lobbying happening in the lead up, it’s still not clear whether the event will make a real impact on the lives of Americans struggling to feed their families healthy meals. And the fact that the process has felt rushed, chaotic, and secretive hasn’t helped paint the event as the historic occasion many people were hoping it might be. Some are worried that rather than a real coming-together that results in constructive engagement, it will simply be used as an opportunity to announce policies that were already in the works.

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We’ll be looking for answers next week, when the moment arrives.

Read more:
Will the U.S. Finally Take a Holistic Approach to Ending Child Hunger?
Hunger Continues to Plague Americans. Here’s Why—and What to Do About It
What’s Next for Healthier School Meals? We Asked the USDA

Climate Action or Corporate Welfare? Last Wednesday, in the run up to Climate Week, Secretary Vilsack announced the USDA would bump up the amount of money invested in its new Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program to more than $3 billion. He also revealed, to very mixed reviews, the first 70 projects it plans to fund.

Many organizations, trade groups, and universities that received funding celebrated the announcement. Texas A&M AgriLife Research called its grant for the implementation of climate-smart agriculture and forestry “historic.” Pasa Sustainable Agriculture called the money it was awarded toward its soil health and financial benchmark community research work, alongside about 20 other Northeast farm and agroforestry organizations “an investment in the future of our food system.”

However, others criticized the fact that the agency plans to funnel billions of taxpayer dollars to some of the food and agriculture industries’ biggest, wealthiest players, many of whom have contributed to the climate crisis in significant ways. JBS and Coca-Cola partnered with the Iowa Soybean Association on a project awarded $95 million, while commodity grain giant Archer-Daniels Midland received  $90 million. Tyson Foods was awarded $60 million for a project with partners including agrichemical giant Bayer, McDonald’s, and Deloitte, a consulting firm that has counted Shell, Exxon, and other oil and gas giants among its clients.

“Most of the $2.8 billion in the Climate-Smart Commodities Program will line the pockets of the biggest climate polluters in agriculture,” said Jennifer Molidor, senior food campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Rather than addressing Biden’s call to mitigate greenhouse gases and break up the monopolies dominating corporate agriculture, the USDA is ignoring climate science by boosting the most harmful sectors in this industry.”

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Read More:
At Annual Sustainability Gathering, Big Ag Describes Its Efforts to Control the Narrative
Big Food is Betting on Regenerative Agriculture to Thwart Climate Change

Farmers Go to Washington. Meanwhile, farmers and ranchers from all over the country also had a lot to say last week about how the climate crisis is impacting their farms (and what they’re doing about it) during the National Farmers Union’s 2022 Fly-In. Secretary Vilsack made time to meet with the group, and then Farmers Union members  from multiple states met with their elected representatives. In addition to voicing their support for more federal support for on-farm conservation programs and the Growing Climate Solutions Act, the group was pushing for further investment in local, regional, and diversified markets in the upcoming farm bill, Right-to-Repair laws, and the passage of multiple proposed bills to increase transparency in cattle markets, re-establish Country of Origin labeling for beef, and strengthen Packers & Stockyards protections for ranchers.

Read More:
‘Right to Repair’ Advocates Petition the FTC to Investigate John Deere
Just a Few Companies Control the Meat Industry. Can a New Approach to Monopolies Level the Playing Field?

Lisa Held

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism.

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Lisa Held

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