When did attending a conference about hungry Americans and the appalling state of our dietary health become so popular? It was easier to get a ticket this month for the upcoming Bruce Springsteen tour (seats priced over $1,000 in some venues) than it was to wangle an invite to the nation’s first big White House food confab since 1969 (Richard Nixon was President!). I guess the good news is that our appetite to resolve the problems of millions of food insecure Americans, as well as to address the 93 percent of us who are not healthy, is stronger than our desire for a joyfully cathartic night with the Boss.
In what can only be hailed as “Boss” Biden’s grand attempt to cast the public engagement net as far as possible, thousands of government officials, food industry staff, non-profit leaders, and just plain folks weighed in to shape the conference since it was first announced in May. By holding bi-weekly calls (30 minutes each), hosting four regional listening sessions, and accepting reams of letters, reports, and comments, the White House made an earnest effort to hear everyone.
But as we know, democracy has its limits. Though hundreds of people were on each call, time only allowed for 6 or 7 questions and comments per session. Like the listening sessions, the voices I heard pleaded for the application of equity and the inclusion of people with lived experience. In my listening session that was for the entire Midwest and Mountain states, 600 people vied for attention in a dozen or more breakout groups. Mine had 53 people, many of whom spoke up for better coordination between all food system stakeholders as well as better access to healthy and affordable food for all consumers. My two cents, that I squeezed into my one minute of participation, argued for more federal support for food policy councils. Like everyone else, my devout faith in the process led me to believe that my insightful intervention would become the top featured recommendation at the conference (wrong).
To the anguished ears of many, several people spoke up over the course of the past four months, sometimes listening in muted shock, when they realized that two big topics were left off the table. Because of a Congressional “deal” to fund the conference—you can guess what side of the aisle the push came from—the food system’s significant contribution to carbon emissions, and the food industry’s relentless need to manufacture and sell us megatons of highly processed crap were not part of the discussion. Yes, many progressive recommendations were presented to expand and enhance USDA’s food and nutrition programs and promote more access to healthy and affordable food. But avoiding action on these big food system problems is like having a car with four flat tires. You fix three of them but not the fourth, and your car limps down the road until an axle breaks. Along the way, the responsibility falls on the taxpayer to fund federal programs to close the food security (not economic security) gap as well as pay for tens of billions in additional health care costs associated with diet-related illnesses like diabetes.
When the irrigation water has dried up and the heat has withered the crops, it won’t matter how many food stamps you have. And when the food industry, who with some anti-hunger advocates oppose regulations and restrictions that would reduce the consumption of unhealthy food, you have to wonder if real health progress can ever be made.
Consider this choice: You can impose severe restrictions on what the food industry can manufacture, and which food items can be purchased with public funds (e.g., purchase restrictions on unhealthy items when using SNAP), or you can splatter nutrition education across the land and fund incentive-based approaches (e.g., Veggie Vouchers/prescriptions, etc.) designed to promote healthy eating behaviors. From a purely economic perspective, the latter policy choice shifts (externalizes) the costs (including dietary health) of unhealthy eating to the public sector, relieving the private sector of all but the most anemic of responses (I invite some ambitious doctoral students looking for a really big thesis topic to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of those two very different policy options).
Not to place a damper on the enthusiasm of those throwing this shindig, whatever achievements can be attributed to this conference will have little to do with the brilliance and boldness of “new” ideas. The Conference’s long-term success will be determined by what is politically possible in Congress—Republican- or Democrat-controlled—where big, bold social programs are about as popular as the pandemic. The 1969 White House hunger conference—referenced frequently during the 2022 conference—has been touted as a great breakthrough moment for food security because it catalyzed new and expanded federal nutrition initiatives like the Women, Infant, and Children Program (WIC) and School Meals. But what hasn’t been acknowledged about that historic moment is that back then, we had this word that looks like Greek today—bipartisanship.
Some of the past nutrition policy breakthroughs were the work of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs (1968 to 1977), chaired by Senator George McGovern (D) and strongly supported by Robert Dole (R). Just as significantly, the Select Committee’s report leap-frogged the thinking of many narrowly focused anti-hunger advocates when it said that hunger “is not [so much] the mechanics of the food assistance programs as it is the fact of persistent poverty, and the continued tolerance in this country of a starkly inequitable distribution of income. In a nation…in which 40 million people remain poor or near poor, more than a food stamp or child-feeding program is at issue.” When I read those words today, I’m struck dumb by why, nearly 50 years later, we haven’t done enough to act on this simple but truthful analysis. Instead, as 2022 Conference’s focus attests, we continue to lean on food assistance programs the way a drunk leans on a lamppost.
McGovern and Dole were also prescient in linking health, diet, and the food system. The Committee’s report Dietary Goals for the United States set the stage for expanded public and private efforts to reduce the consumption of fat, sugar, and highly processed food. But the soaring rates of obesity and diabetes since then only underscore how immense the problem has become, and likewise, how potent the pushback from the food industry remains.
Looking back over the Select Committee’s work, I was reminded of why we are where we are today. Rather than take robust action to address the root cause of hunger, namely poverty, the U.S. chose to create a mind-boggling labyrinth of food programs. This constituted a kind of moral middle ground that recognized a political consensus that hunger is abhorrent, therefore worthy of action, but that poverty is tolerable, and its eradication is a low priority. Additionally, racism, especially in the earlier days of nutrition programs, played no small part in driving this approach. As the 2022 White House Conference’s National Strategy to End Hunger points out, there are over 200 federal food, farm, and nutrition programs administered by 21 agencies. According to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), this situation promotes “…fragmentation, a lack of coordination and collaboration between government agencies that greatly reduces effectiveness of those programs.” Besides presenting a kind of bureaucratic imbroglio for those wanting to organize effective responses, they stand as a burning testament to our comfort treating the symptoms rather than their cause.
This became glaringly obvious when I reviewed the U.S. Census Bureau’s data that showed child poverty fell to a record low 5.2% in 2021. Why? The fast and effective modifications made to the nation’s safety net in response to Covid-19 demonstrated what can be done when policy makers choose to take action. While some of the changes improved and increased the flow of food and food dollars to eligible nutrition assistance recipients, the bulk of the credit for the lower poverty levels, according to the Bureau, goes to the Child Tax Credit which lifted 5.3 million people, including 2.9 million children, out of poverty in 2021. That initiative along with the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and various pandemic stimulus payments had a far greater impact on poverty reduction than SNAP, School Lunch, and WIC combined.
That analysis is not intended to diminish the impact of food assistance programs—SNAP’s entitlement feature along with the increase in benefits provided by Congress made an important contribution during the pandemic—but when you bear down specifically on what people’s individual needs and costs are, a stronger emphasis on direct forms of cash assistance, along with subsidized health care, point the way to a more progressive and effective approach to building social and economic well-being.
To their credit, the writers of the National Strategy to End Hunger did support making Child Tax Credits permanent and raising the national minimum wage to $15.00 per hour (it is and has been, since 2009, $7.25 per hour). But, of course, the Strategy makes no mention of a tax and redistribution plan that would narrow America’s yawning income and wealth gap. Instead, the lion’s share of the actionable recommendations are tweaks to existing food and nutrition programs. When I hear panelist voices rise in rhetorical flourish to say, “We can end hunger—we can do this!” wouldn’t it make more sense to say, “We can end poverty—we can do this!”
But one cynical thought I have is that the idea of hosting this Conference seems predicated on the notion that hunger is still a big deal in this country. The Conference organizers may be operating under the outdated assumption that if we just give our heartstrings a little tune-up, the people will once again rise up in collective outrage. Even using the word “Hunger” in the conference’s title is a thinly veiled attempt to arouse our emotions in a way that food insecurity, a more accurate and granular description of America’s food challenges can’t. But lacking the blockbuster equivalent of a “Hunger in America,” the 1968 CBS-TV documentary that shocked viewers with images of starving American children, it’s not likely that even a White House sponsored event will stir the sleeping lions of popular discontent. The only “food story” receiving top billing now is inflation which stokes the nation’s anger, not food insecure neighbors. One recent letter writer to the New York Post was nearly apoplectic over Fancy Feast cat food going from 52 cents a can to 74 since 2020! Biden’s feline favorability rating is no doubt in the litter box.
Where I break from my own tirade against federal nutrition programs as a useful substitute for an aggressive anti-poverty strategy is when it comes to school meal programs. Now that we no longer vilify school lunch ladies, likening them as we once did to the Wicked Witches of the West, our schools now have lunch programs we can mostly be proud of. Credit Michelle Obama, the Farm to School movement, or the Good Food Purchasing Program, but tens of millions of American school children are now eating nutritional, tasty, and increasingly locally sourced food. It’s been a journey for sure, but as one who can remember school lunch the way sailors of yore remembered hardtack, we can satisfyingly say we’ve come a long way, baby!
Clearly, the Strategy’s goal is to feed all children for free, thus doing away with the obnoxious school cafeteria payment categories of “free, reduced, and full-priced meals.” I may actually live long enough to experience the end of a practice that has no doubt traumatized millions of children who showed up a nickel short at the checkout line. Biden’s proposal is to bring nine million more children into the “free” category of school meals by 2032. That is a big step in the right direction and consistent with the one advocated a decade ago by Janet Poppendieck’s great book Free for All.
Another big step for school meals (local economies, health, and the environment as well) is the growing emphasis on purchasing school food regionally from farmers and local food businesses. As Donna Martin, school food service director for Burke County (GA) said during one Conference panel, “I’ll buy anything you can grow for me.”
We also heard from NYC Mayor Eric Adams, a vegan, who is promoting “meatless Mondays” and “plant-based Fridays” in his city’s schools. World Central Kitchen’s Chef Jose Andres told us to use the same dollar that we feed children with to also train and employ people and buy from local farmers. Given its size and all this momentum around school meals—breakfast, lunch, after school snacks, summer meals—they are fast becoming the biggest force for nutritional and economic change in the country.
As powerful as the school and child portion of Biden’s proposal is, and as helpful as the tweaks to food assistance programs are, I remain dismayed that we are once again going down the road more traveled. We know where it goes because its paths have been trodden now for decades—more food assistance programs and funding to assuage food insecurity; more incentives and well-intentioned “eat well” messages with dubious effectiveness; more pleading with the food industry: “Pretty please, Nice Mr. Food Executive, please stop manufacturing and marketing the food that has taken millions to an early grave.”
I’m not naïve; I fully acknowledge the political realities. I’m reasonably sure that if we had substantial Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress that the Biden Administration would pursue social welfare and nutrition policies that would truly be bold, possibly revolutionary, that would take a backhoe to the deeply rooted reality of American poverty. But from what I’ve read and heard from the Hunger Conference, the times, they ain’t a changing. That all we can squeeze from the Republicans is incremental change doesn’t mean that one can’t use the moment to articulate a vision of health and wellness that holds those responsible for our dietary sickness accountable, and that leans hard into the eradication of poverty—including a muscular redistribution of income and wealth–as our primary purposes.
Let’s take the road less traveled, if for no other reason than it’s time to break out of our rut. Let’s take the road that will end poverty. Let’s take it, not because we’re sure where it leads, but because we know that if we do end poverty, we’ll also end hunger, and at least a dozen other miseries that our world is heir to. Let’s also go down that less traveled side street whose storefronts are stocked only with healthy food, where fake food is consigned to fallen down “speakeasies” at the edge of town, a kind of “junk food red light district,” whose contents are priced exorbitantly, and their purchase expressly forbidden to anyone under 21 years of age.
Ultimately, our task should be to eliminate the necessity for another White House Hunger Conference 50 years from now.