White House’s upcoming hunger conference could have huge policy implications for food security

For the first time since the Nixon administration, the White House will host a conference on hunger, nutrition and health, bringing together advocates, lawmakers and experts to develop strategies to address food insecurity and diet-related health problems.

The conference comes after a spike in food insecurity rates across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among black and Hispanic families. The goal of the conference is to develop strategies to achieve a major goal: end hunger and reduce diet-related diseases in the United States by 2030.

“This is a big deal,” said Dr. Sara Bleich, director of food security and health equity at the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, who is helping to plan the event.

Details about the conference scheduled by the Biden administration for September 28 remain scarce. So far, the White House has released only one skeleton schedule, and many stakeholders are still awaiting their formal invitations.

According to Bleich, the conference should result in a national strategy that “really describes how the federal government intends to tackle the conference goals”.

If the 1969 Hunger Conference is any indicator, this event could have long-lasting implications for US food security policy

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This original conference led to the creation and expansion of many state nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAPformerly known as food stamps), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the school breakfast program (SBP).

“When you think about all that came out of it, it’s really encouraging to think about what might come out of the conference today,” said Lyndi Buckingham-Schutt, assistant professor of community health and nutrition at Iowa State University.

The White House has held a series of listening sessions over the past several months in preparation for the conference, and anti-hunger groups in the Midwest have made contributions during these sessions.

“Overall, our message is: we know what works and what works. And our problem is that we never scaled it,” said Chris Bernard, executive director of Hunger Free Oklahoma.

Bernard says the pandemic has been a good test run for expanding food service programs like P-EBT and he would like the White House to make them permanent.

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“Ultimately, it’s about giving people the resources they need to buy the groceries they want,” he said.

He also hopes the White House will commit to expanding child feeding programs, like the federal school lunch and school breakfast programs, which he says have helped feed many rural Oklahomans during the pandemic.

“As a state that has a lot of rural areas, we’ve fought for this for a long time,” he said. “Congregational catering requirements do not make sense for summer and after-school meals in rural settings.”

The White House has been sending out rolling invitations over the past week, but Bernard is still waiting to hear if he’s on the guest list.

With the conference coming up so soon, invitations could be last-minute dictating who can attend in person, Buckingham-Schutt said.

“Having to book a flight, having to change childcare plans, having to do all of that within two weeks is kind of a privileged way of thinking about how we can do things and could really take away from the different people that can be there, to represent the different voices that need to be part of this conversation,” she said.

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According to USDA’s Bleich, the conference will also have a robust virtual component.

“There’s a very small personal presence that will come together in DC,” she said. “What the organizers of the conference are emphasizing is that we want people across the country to be watching and having parties and discussing what people are hearing.”

Ultimately, said Bleich, the conference serves to initiate conversations that will span the next 10 years.

“It should be a launch pad for where we’re going as a country and how we can really address these important issues,” she said.

Follow Dana on Twitter @DanaHCronin

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

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