The Biden administration's plan to hold a hunger summit, more than 50 years after President Richard Nixon convened a similar one, will put a spotlight not only on shortcomings in the current programs but also on issues that emerged over the decades since.
The White House is three months away from staging the September conference and hasn't yet set an exact date or an agenda. Optimists see a chance to propose policies on hunger, nutrition and health that could affect millions of people.
But Washington is more partisan in 2022, and the administration faces the prospect of a Republican Congress early next year, posing a challenge to match the previous conference, which by one count had more than 90% of its recommendations implemented within two years.
The White House is asking for ideas and comments that will be organized around five pillars: improving food access and affordability; integrating nutrition and health; giving consumers healthy choices and empowering them to make them; supporting physical activity; and enhancing nutrition and food security research.
"We are more partisan than we were 50 years ago. I still think there is still a strong kernel of bipartisanship in food policy in this country," said Dan Glickman, an agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration. "I think the White House is interested in constructive, specific recommendations that can deal with the problem areas and the gaps that exist out there. The trick is discipline."
The event will also come amid economic disruptions putting access to healthy food more top of mind for many. The COVID-19 pandemic that erupted in 2020 left grocery shelves bare at times and led to miles-long lines of people seeking help at food banks and pantries. The Russian invasion of Ukraine this year broke more supply chains, sending food prices up in the U.S. and around the world.
Food banks and charities say demand for help is rising as inflation puts families in financial binds. The organizations filling the food gap also say they are being squeezed.
At a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing, the head of the Atlanta Community Food Bank said demand at his organization is 35% above pre-pandemic levels. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation's largest federal food aid effort for low-income people, has 41.3 million people participating in the program. That is down from a high of 43 million people in September 2020 but above pre-pandemic levels.
RACE AND FOOD
The intersection of race and food was underscored in May, after a gunman killed 10 people in a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood. The store closed and residents without cars were left with no grocery retailer within walking distance.
Glickman's optimism about bipartisanship stems from Nixon's 1969 conference. That event led to establishment of the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program and the national expansion of both the federal school lunch program and food stamps as a safety net. Conservative Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., and liberal George McGovern, D-S.D., led many of the efforts to push ahead with policies out of the conference. The National Institutes of Health said 1,650 of the 1,800 final recommendations from the 1969 event were implemented within two years.
"It had great impact, and most of our federal feeding programs occurred because of that conference," Glickman said. "I think the idea is to see where the gaps are."
Massachusetts Democratic Rep. , a staffer for George McGovern years after the 1969 event, pushed President Barack Obama for a new conference and kept up the effort with President Joe Biden. The congressman calls McGovern, whom he was not related to, a role model in providing an example of how a lawmaker could influence anti-hunger policies.
McGovern told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in early June that he sees the conference as a tool to break down bureaucratic barriers that sometimes block policy development and implementation, especially in areas such as food insecurity among enlisted active-duty military service members and veterans.
"One of the reasons I called for this White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health to serve as a place to break down the silos, to highlight what's not working in this country and to talk about the complexities of the system," McGovern said.
"I think this White House conference provides the secretary of Defense and the secretary of the VA the opportunity to put some things on the table that we can get done," McGovern said about hunger in the military. "This White House conference will be an opportunity to get the political will to help our service members, to help our veterans and to help, quite frankly, all families who struggle with food insecurity in this country."
The partisan challenge this year is already evident in the skepticism from some congressional Republicans.
"On its face, that mission appears praiseworthy," Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee and a potential chairman if his party takes the majority, said of the meeting's goals. But he complained about "no outreach from the White House on this. You would think you would engage the authorizing committee when it comes to nutrition."
Thompson said the best way to end hunger is to get people out of poverty.
"We have an obligation here to make sure we are helping people effectively out of poverty, out of financial distress, to the point where they don't need these programs," he said.
Aware of the partisan difficulty, the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition, Science and Policy in Massachusetts has assembled a 25-person task force and a separate strategy group involving 25 member organizations. Jean Mayer founded the nutrition school after chairing the 1969 conference, and the institution considers building on the conference results part of its mission.
Former Senate Majority Leader William H. Frist, R-Tenn., a surgeon; Glickman; and celebrity chef José Andrés, founder of the nonprofit World Central Kitchen that provides emergency feeding in the U.S. and internationally, are co-chairs of the task force.
The task force's goal is to build consensus on recommendations across sources including anti-hunger organizations, groups focused on diet-related chronic diseases and business innovation organizations, said Dariush Mozaffarian, the school's dean and long an advocate of a White House summit on food. Streamlining recommendations is key, Mozaffarian said. The task force has set an Aug. 1 deadline for sending a report to the White House.
"I think some of the threats to success (for the White House) are lack of consensus. If every group has its own set of recommendations that are just narrowly focused on their own priorities, then the government, Congress, the agencies might throw up their hands and say, 'Look, if you guys can't agree then why should we do anything?'" he said.
FOOD AND HEALTH
"These are not Democratic problems. Blue states and red states are suffering from diabetes. Blue states and red states are suffering from food insecurity. Blue states and red states are suffering from rising health care costs," Mozaffarian said.
In the U.S., 48.1% of adults 18 and older have hypertension, and 20% of people ages 2 to 19 and 42% of adults have obesity that can put them at risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Of U.S. adults, 88 million, more than 1 in 3, have pre-diabetes, and more than 8 in 10 of them don't know they have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Glickman said one difference from 1969 is an established anti-hunger community, a larger food industry, government agencies responsible for nutrition and food, and other players.
"One place where there can be very significant effort is the science of nutrition and whether we are adequately funded and staffed up to deal with the whole issue of food and its relationship to health and how it impacts disease. That's an area where I think the science can be expanded significantly," Glickman said.
Native American reservations, inner cities and rural areas still have gaps in access to food, which should lead to a review of existing programs to find improvements, he added.
Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center, an umbrella group for a coalition of anti-hunger and anti-poverty organizations, said it will take long-term political will to carry out recommendations from the summit. He identified a food lesson in the federal response to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 with waivers that allowed free meals for all schoolchildren, higher monthly food stamp benefits and streamlining the process for renewing or applying for nutrition benefits.
"It kind of proved that we can do better," he said. "We believe that if you focus on hunger and solve for hunger, you're going to have to solve for other things as well. If you solve for hunger, you can't really do that without addressing poverty and you'll need to look at some of the root causes as well," Guardia said.
Guardia urged the White House Domestic Policy Council, which is overseeing the conference, to listen to and include in decision-making people who know hunger and poverty firsthand. He said there's also an element of equity in turning to people often left out of discussions about decisions that will affect their lives.
"There are people who have lived expertise. They know what it's like, and they have a lot of helpful experience," he said.
Mozaffarian, a cardiologist, sees the conference as an opportunity to look at existing federal programs while also tackling diet and diet-related diseases that affect a majority of U.S. adults. "Our country is drowning in health care spending from diet-related diseases. Half of adults have diabetes or pre-diabetes, and 3 in 4 have overweight or obesity. When you have the majority of Americans being sick, everybody kind of thinks that is normal. It's not normal," he said.
"The challenge is that food touches everything. It touches equity. It touches culture. It touches taste. It touches the economy. It touches health. It touches hunger. It's so diffuse it's hard for people to get their minds wrapped around it," Mozaffarian said.