Voices from the White House Conference on Hunger and Nutrition | Civil Eats

Voices from the White House Conference on Hunger and Nutrition

On stage at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, from left: Senator Cory Booker, Senator Mike Braun, White House Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice, and Representative Jim McGovern. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

“I experienced firsthand the impacts of poverty, hunger, and homelessness on my mind, my body, and my soul,” Jimmieka Mills, the co-founder of Equitable Spaces, told a crowd in Washington, D.C. yesterday.  “I know what it’s like to not know where your next meal will come from, both as a child and as a parent.”

Mills was on stage half a mile from the White House to introduce President Biden to a room of hundreds of anti-hunger advocates, nutritionists, researchers, farmers, policymakers, and a large global online audience. After a somewhat rocky lead-up to the Conference on Hunger, Health, and Nutrition—the first of its kind since 1969—Biden and many others in the room emphasized the moment as historic. The day before, his administration released a 44-page, five-pillar National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health that set a target to end hunger and increase healthy eating by 2030.

“Our bold goals require a whole-of-government approach and a whole-of-society effort,” Biden told the crowd. “No child should go to bed hungry, no parent should die of a disease that could be prevented. When we’re at our best, we think big.”

Big thinking will be necessary given the current landscape: Although food insecurity rates were slightly down in 2021 due to COVID-related expansions of the safety net, many of those additional supports have gone away, while food prices are still soaring. And more recent surveys show food insecurity shot up again this summer, with many people returning to food banks. At the same time, poor nutrition is connected to several of the leading contributing factors in COVID-19 deaths.

Experts praised many of the components of the National Strategy, especially making the expansion of the Child Tax Credit permanent and expanding the number of students who qualify for free school meals—with a pathway toward free meals for all by 2032.

But those two efforts—and many others in the strategy—will require Congressional action to become reality, a questionable prospect given the upcoming midterm elections. While the word “bipartisan” was used over and over at the conference, the only Republican lawmaker who took the stage was Senator Mike Braun (R-IN). (Republican Congresswoman Jackie Walorski was also involved in the conference planning and likely would have been there but died tragically in an August car crash.) Other prominent Republicans, including the ranking member of the powerful House Agriculture Committee Glenn Thompson (R-PA), were not in the room and called the conference “a partisan gathering lacking the direction and clarity needed to drive significant, long-lasting change.”

Federal agencies also move notoriously slow, and other talked-about components of the strategy—including putting nutrition information on the front of food packages to encourage healthier choices and providing medically tailored meals to Medicaid and Medicare patients—were proposed as research projects only, without concrete timelines.

Still, lawmakers emphasized the importance of coming together and mobilizing a wide range of federal agencies to begin work on helping its citizens live healthier lives. “This is a big deal. The president of the United States just announced that ending hunger and promoting good nutrition is a national priority,” said Jim McGovern (D-MA), who was a driving force behind the conference. “What happens today is important, but what happens tomorrow is even more important.”

In addition to the government’s wide-ranging plan, the administration also worked with nonprofits and private companies to secure $8 billion in external commitments aligned with the strategy. Multiple healthcare systems pledged to train physicians and other healthcare professionals in nutrition and to screen patients for food insecurity, while FoodCorps put $250 million toward expanding its school nutrition education to reach half a million students by 2030.

Google pledged to launch new features to help Americans access nutrition benefits and healthcare services, Sysco promised to donate meals, cash, and employee volunteer time to food banks totaling $500 million over five years, and Instacart announced a new initiative to incorporate food-assistance benefits into its online platform.

Of course, corporations have a long history of making promises and then breaking them when public interest wanes. In a press conference, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the administration was thinking about a plan to hold companies accountable. “We have a responsibility to check in and to make sure that we understand and appreciate what the results of the commitments are,” he said, “so, we’ll set up a process.”

Civil Eats spoke with a number of attendees at the conference to understand their perspectives about its significance.

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Making Connections Between Hunger and Nutrition

“It has taken us a very long time to thoroughly combine nutrition with making sure people have access to food and for the President and the White House to make these items a priority, to really look at access to healthy foods. And to also look at: What are the mechanisms to make it happen? How is your health impacted by not having access to healthy foods? And then to say: These are the ways we’re going to conquer this. I’ve been waiting a very long time for all of this to come together and to have a room full of people who have been laboring on these issues and working in the trenches on all kinds of amazing programs.”
– Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine)

Who’s at the Table

“I feel very optimistic about what we’re hearing. When they’re talking about expanding the Child Tax Credit, that’s a huge win for folks. And in general, [this issue] hasn’t really been at the top of the list for 50 years and this is a great starting point.

What I would like to hear a little more of is: How are the local, small, community-based organizations represented, and how are we going to build up that infrastructure? [I want to hear more from] the people on the ground doing the work . . . who are most affected by the decisions that are made in these rooms.”
– Matt Jozwiak, Rethink Food

“I’m here representing people with lived experience . . . We know what it is to have to go to bed without feeding our children. We know the importance of nutrition and how kids who aren’t eating don’t do well in school. These are the things people need to hear so they can take the fight seriously and to end the stigma of ‘welfare queens.’ There are so many more people who are suffering through these things, who want to become a part of the solution and just aren’t given the opportunity to be in the right room with the gatekeepers.”
– Barbie Izquierdo, anti-hunger advocate, Community Driven Consulting

Universal School Meals

“The one [thing] that stands out is healthy school meals for all. We’re glad to see that rise to the top. We’ve heard from families how essential [free meals] were. [They mean] less stress at home, it’s the healthiest thing kids have to eat, it’s a way for kids to continue to improve their education, and it just reduces stigma. There are so many benefits.

“The [pledge to reinstate the] Child Tax credit is huge. It cut child poverty by half. We saw that people were using the money to buy food, which supports some of the other things we’ve been asking for in terms of benefits, like adequacy on the SNAP side. And we’re hearing from our friends in the food bank community that, particularly as prices rise, people are still facing tough times. So those two things really jumped out as game changers.”
– Luis Guardia, Food Research & Action Center

The Roots of Hunger and the Power of Big Food Companies

“The administration is really promoting a larger vision of economic development and opportunity and not just throwing food at a problem. If we eliminate hunger by 2030 we’re not going to have to give out free food. Maybe we’re not even going to have people on SNAP. Everyone’s going to have a good job at a fair wage with benefits that can support them and their families. That’s the kind of real transformational energy that we’re hoping to come out of this.”
– Mike Curtin, DC Central Kitchen

“We’ve been pushing really bad food on poor people for decades in the name of charity. We need to get out of the charitable food business and into the economic opportunity business. One thing that isn’t on everybody’s radar is procurement reform. Until city, county, state, and federal food contracts for prisons, schools, Meals-on-Wheels, et cetera, go from low-bid to best-value, multinational food companies will retain a vice grip on the very pivotal spots where we need new food coming in.

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“We could be a lot more honest and forthright, and even hurt some feelings, and that would be a good thing, because there are certain things, when we come to conferences like this, that we’re afraid to say out loud. And one of them is that corporate food has an unhealthy grip on our food system.”
– Robert Egger, board member, World Central Kitchen

The Role of the Healthcare System

“I want to recognize and push forward this idea of integrating food security and health care. [The administration] has been doing a lot of great work with pediatrics and senior care. We’re seeing that language in the National Strategy in particular, the importance of screening for food insecurity and intervening effectively.

“Addressing social needs is part of healthcare. Food is one of the first things to go when families are struggling. Unless we address it, it’s invisible. Clinicians may use weight changes and laboratory signs, and those are great, but they’re not consistent enough to be able to identify [food and nutrition insecurity] in our settings. We have to [ask people if they’re getting enough food]. If not, we assume hunger’s not there. However, food insecurity is ubiquitous everywhere, in all of our clinics, all of our practices. We’re seeing it in every county around the country. So, it’s important that we do this.”
– Kofi Essel, pediatrician, Children’s National Hospital

Farms and Local Food

“It’s very important that we look at our supply chain . . . from seed to plate. That means thinking about our aggregators, our distributors, our farmers, how we’re procuring food. What I like in [the National Strategy] is the shift to regional food systems. What I want to see operationalized is putting the power back in the hands of the people and everyday farmers, not corporations, not consolidating government contracts and therefore the wealth with a few corporations. It’s time to give those back to farmers who are taking care of the land.

“I’m hopeful that we really will see that shift. When we can redistribute and decentralize our value chain, we are going to reinvigorate all of our communities, especially our rural communities, and give us back our food autonomy. We all want to eat fresh, healthy food—and we’re raising it. So, this is the way that everyone wins. I’m really looking forward to making sure that all farmers have access to all markets, and we’re really depending on Vilsack to stick by his word.”
– Meighen Lovelace, farmer, Mountain Harvest Consulting

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. 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. Read more >

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