The FERN | Ahead of White House Hunger Conference, Groups Argue for Equity and a Stronger Safety Net

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More than 50 years ago, the Nixon administration convened a conference on food, nutrition, and health that set the course for America’s anti-hunger efforts in the coming decades. Now, as the Biden administration prepares for its sequel this September, anti-hunger groups, health advocates, farm groups, and others are trying to get their priorities onto the agenda. 

Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, said he hopes the conference will mark the beginning of a long-term national conversation about food and health, and about ways the food system can be transformed to address health and nutrition inequalities as well as a host of other issues.

“I think the biggest issue facing our country today is food,” he said. “It’s a top cause of poor health. It’s the top driver of preventable healthcare spending. It’s causing a lot of human suffering. It’s causing inequities. It’s depleting our natural resources.”

The conference comes at a time when at least one in 10 Americans ranks as food insecure, and when more than 10 percent of the population has diabetes — with African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos disproportionately affected on both counts. More than 41 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, and most households that get SNAP are families with children, disabled people, or the elderly. In recent months, as food prices have continued to rise and pandemic aid has begun to be withdrawn, many food banks are reporting increased demand and say that the need for food assistance remains well above pre-pandemic levels.

The Biden administration hasn’t yet set an actual date for The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, but it has set an ambitious goal: To end hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030. The conference’s scope is defined by five pillars: improving food access and affordability; integrating nutrition and health; empowering consumers to make healthy choices; supporting physical activity; and improving nutrition and food security research. 

The White House asked the public to submit its recommendations, comments, and experiences so that it can incorporate this feedback into the conference agenda. Now, as some groups are making their recommendations public, key priorities are emerging: addressing poverty in order to reduce food insecurity, involving people and groups who disproportionately experience hunger, and strengthening safety net programs like SNAP and school meals. 

Ending hunger and reducing poverty should be a national priority for the government, said the Alliance to End Hunger in a report released this month. The group — a coalition that includes corporations such as Amazon, Instacart, and Cargill as well as a host of anti-hunger and other nonprofit groups, including Feeding America and No Kid Hungry — wrote that the conference must address the root causes of hunger, poverty, and diet-related diseases by closing the racial wealth divide and promoting economic policies that benefit low- and moderate-income households. 

“The American people deserve economic policies that promote good jobs with benefits, wages that reflect the cost of living, and robust benefits for those who are unable to work or have found themselves on hard times,” the report said. 

A number of the Alliance’s recommendations appear to conflict with the actual practices of some of its corporate members. For example, the report endorsed raising the minimum wage so that people who work full time do not have to rely on public benefits, and it supported policies that make it easier for workers to form labor unions. 

The group also recommended expanding existing nutrition programs and making school meals universally free. It argued for an emphasis on inclusion and accessibility, saying that it is “imperative” that at all stages, the conference includes people who have experienced hunger and poverty, and it urged the government to turn over some of its decision-making power to people who have historically been excluded. 

In testimony released on Wednesday, the grassroots anti-hunger group WhyHunger wrote that the federal government has for years “been abdicating its role to fully ensure the right to food for its citizens, increasingly foisting this role onto the private charitable food sector.” This, in turn, has allowed food insecurity, systemic racism, and inequality to “flourish,” the group said.

Meanwhile, in a report released last week, The Native American Agriculture Fund and the Native Farm Bill Coalition urged the Biden administration to ensure that federal nutrition policies facilitate access to traditional foods for tribal citizens; give tribal governments the authority to administer all federal nutrition programs; and link federal nutrition policy and agricultural policy to support Native producers who are growing foods that promote the health of Indigenous communities. While about a quarter of American Indian and Alaska Native people receive SNAP, tribal governments are not allowed to administer the program.

“Indigenous people have been fighting to repair colonization’s impacts on their food system for hundreds of years,” said Erin Parker, director of the Indigenous Food & Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. But the resulting health disparities persist today, she said.

Giving tribes the authority to administer federal nutrition programs would make them more efficient and more responsive to the nutritional needs of Indigenous people, she said. In remote and rural communities, SNAP applicants must sometimes drive four hours to an office to get approved for the benefits, Parker said. Letting tribal governments administer SNAP could ensure access to culturally appropriate foods and also provide a market opportunity for Native farmers and ranchers. 

Although farm policy and issues of sustainability are not expected to be on the White House conference agenda, a number of groups weighed in on these questions. They included the Natural Resources Defense Council, which argued for better support for farmers transitioning to organic agriculture as well as for reducing food waste, addressing food system consolidation, and expanding the social safety net. 

Meanwhile, Farm Action, a farmers’ group, called on the government to, at a minimum, align its subsidies with its nutritional guidelines. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine urged the White House to promote plant-based diets. FMI-The Food Industry Association, a large trade group representing food retailers, wholesalers, and suppliers, said the federal government should make it easier for businesses to donate food, and also pledged to donate two billion meals in 2023. And Food Corps argued for more food and nutrition education in schools, universal school meals, and better cooking equipment for schools.

Mozaffarian, of Tufts University, is part of a task force, Informing the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, that will release its own recommendations for the conference next month. His own wish list includes a “nutrition science moonshot” that would bring more investment in nutrition science and the creation of a new national institute of nutrition within the National Institutes of Health. 

The policies put into place after the first White House conference helped eliminate long-term chronic hunger and malnutrition, Mozaffarian said. “Compared to 1969, things have improved.” But he noted that new and pressing concerns — such as diet-related diseases like obesity and diabetes and greater recognition of inequality and health disparities — have emerged. “To have the government, again, come together to say, ‘Look, across the entire government, all the agencies in the federal government, and both houses of Congress, we’re going to talk about food and nutrition,’ is really historic.”