Tuesday, June 21, 2022
In early May, President Joe Biden announced that his Administration would hold a White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health this September. With Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) still up in the air, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) waivers either expired or expiring soon, and Farm Bill hearings well underway in preparation for next fall, the White House Conference surprised many. The first and only other White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health happened in 1969–over half a century ago. While it was a landmark piece of legislation on food insecurity and nutrition, much has changed since then. With 2022 still reeling from the global supply chain issues of the pandemic, the policy priorities made in this upcoming White House Conference will have an immediate and long-term impact on food insecurity, nutrition, and health.
The First Conference (1969)
The first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health occurred in early December of 1969. Despite the inequality Americans faced in a post-World War II economy, the issue of food insecurity remained a taboo topic in the eyes of lawmakers. As hunger worsened in the mid-1960s, Congress tasked the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to conduct a study on malnutrition and health problems in the United States. When the study was published in 1968, it drew national attention to unexpected levels of poverty, malnutrition, and hunger. A documentary followed, and both became the subject of controversy when many lawmakers and state representatives accused researchers of misrepresenting the population. Congress members whose states were identified as having high rates of food insecurity were angry and embarrassed, and in many cases, tried to discredit the study and documentary. Had it not been for a few White House officials who continued rallying for legislative action, the conversation would have most likely died out. Fortunately, the conversation on food insecurity did not die out, and President Nixon would go on to host the first conference. The goals for this meeting included reaching a bipartisan, national nutrition policy agenda for improving the well-being of Americans and permanently ending hunger. The result was a turning point for nutrition programs that historically shifted hunger in the U.S., notably for its creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the National School Breakfast Program, the major expansions in the Food Stamp Program and the National School Lunch Program, and important new policies on nutrition and ingredient labeling. Of the 1800 recommendations made at the conference, 1650 were implemented within two years.
The Second Conference (2022)
A lot has changed in the last 53 years, so what discussions and changes can we expect from this conference? Well, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services describes the goals for the 2022 conference as "ending hunger and increasing healthy eating and physical activity in the U.S. by 2030 so that fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension." There is a primary focus on health-related issues, such as heart disease and diabetes, which are some of the leading causes of death in this country. There are five focuses for the upcoming conference. These include improving food access and accessibility, integrating nutrition and health, empowering all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices, supporting physical activity for all, and enhancing nutrition and food security research.
This reveals a shift between the first and second conferences, with a heavier emphasis on health rather than food accessibility in the upcoming conference. A concern for those at Feeding America, who are in direct contact with members of the Biden-Harris Administration, is that the conversation on health will overshadow that on food accessibility. While nutrition and health are cornerstones of what Feeding America believes in and works for the least nutritious meal is no meal at all. Although there are currently only a few available details about the 2022 conference, both the Biden-Harris Administration and Feeding America are providing listening sessions in preparation. Conversations, concerns, and experiences provided at these listening sessions will be collected and used as direct references and focuses at the conference.
Hunger, Nutrition, and Health
It’s no surprise that the two conferences have their similarities and differences. Both are pieces of history and legislation that shaped, and will shape, the food policy agenda for decades to follow. In comparison to the 1969 White House Conference, this year’s conference has a few key differences. These include an increased interest in nutrition-related illnesses, racial disparities in food insecurity, and the disproportionate prevalence of diet-related chronic diseases in racial and ethnic minority groups. The listening sessions held by the Biden-Harris Administration–to better understand the experiences of those facing food insecurity, lack of nutrition and nutrition-related illnesses, and racial disparities–are also a change from the first White House Conference, which focused more heavily on the food insecurity statistics across ten states.
By the end of the conference, the Biden-Harris Administration aims to release a plan uniting the private and public sectors to end hunger by 2030. The listening session for the West Coast and Pacific Region happened on June 9, 2022, but Feeding America food banks across the country are holding over 100 of their own listening sessions in the months leading up to the White House Conference. Ultimately, the national spotlight on hunger, nutrition, and health is much-needed and will undoubtedly be a historical development for communities everywhere. We at FASRB are excited about the new opportunities to provide nutritious meals to our communities!
For more information, visit WhiteHouse.gov/HungerHealthConference.