What Will Come from the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health?

For the first time in half a century, the White House hosted a conference on the nation’s hunger, nutrition, and health to help millions of Americans struggling with food and nutrition insecurity. The late September event, criticized for its poor planning and a lack of bipartisanship, gained as much press attention for Biden’s gaffe calling out a recently deceased member of Congress as it did for plans to help Americans better access nutritious food. It is too early to say if the conference will have the kind of transformational change that Nixon’s did 50 years ago. What is clear is that it galvanized a long list of diverse partners and voices across the country and over $8 billion in commitments that could make a real difference in the health and well-being of Americans, particularly marginalized communities that suffer from economic and health disparities.

Q1: What are the most significant takeaways from the conference?

A1: Whether the event itself was executed perfectly or not, the most important outcome is that the White House crafted a national strategy and built nationwide momentum to end hunger and reduce diet-related diseases. The Biden administration created a high-level task force to shape the strategy, engaged 25 U.S. agencies or regional commissions for a whole-of-government approach, and organized listening calls to seek feedback from individuals and organizations from the private sector, local governments, advocacy organizations, academia, and more.

There was a concerted effort to listen to people and communities with lived experiences, a focus on data and evidence to keep or scale up approaches that work, and engagement with the private sector players who are embedded in the fabric of our food systems. Level of effort matters, particularly when the list of competing political priorities is vast. More than any other U.S. president in recent times, Biden seems to truly see the need for a transformational change to the nation’s food and health systems. The country is currently facing record food inflation, recovering from a baby food formula crisis, and rebounding from the Covid-19 pandemic, which proved that those with the least access to nutritious food were the most susceptible to illness and death from the virus.

Biden’s federal policy recommendations at the conference included permanently extending the Child Tax Credit, securing universal free school meals, adding front-of-pack nutrition labels, integrating prescription nutrition into Medicaid and Medicare to prevent diet-related diseases, and improving transportation to and from grocery stores and farmer’s markets.

Q2: Is there enough congressional political will and bipartisanship to enact President Biden’s recommendations to address hunger, economic disparities, and health concerns?

A2:Nearly all the policy efforts Biden hopes to enact needs support from a highly divided Congress facing a potential power shift this fall. If the Democrats can retain power in the Senate and House, there may be enough support to enact and extend the types of legislation Biden is pushing to help American families who do not have enough resources to put healthy food on the table. So, ultimately, it all hinges on the midterm elections.

Even though the conference itself began with a bipartisan, bicameral bill cosponsored by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Mike Braun (R-IN), Representative James P. McGovern (D-MA), and late representative Jackie Walorski (R-IN), it was obvious that the conference did not have real bipartisan support. Republicans voiced their criticism loudly and there was complete silence on social media from Senator Braun, the only Republican who spoke at the conference. Congress has come together and given bipartisan support in the past to address global food and nutrition insecurity through international-focused initiatives like Feed the Future, yet the deeply fractured political system in Washington right now seems unable to collaborate on the best way forward to tackle hunger and malnutrition in the United States.

The bottom line: bipartisan support is necessary to ensure sweeping changes to the food availability, accessibility, and affordability in the nation and it is not firmly secured. Even if Biden is not successful at leading government interventions, though, the $8 billion in commitments of major companies, investors, foundations, and grassroot organizations is unquestionably impressive and could make a significant difference in Americans’ ability to access nutritious food.

Q3: Who is responsible for executing the strategy and tracking the $8 billion in private and public commitments?

A3: The Biden administration’s position is that improving health, nutrition, and hunger is a whole-of-government and whole-of-society effort. This is nice-sounding rhetoric, but for a bold transformation to occur, there must be someone at the helm. Ambassador Susan Rice, assistant to the president for domestic policy and the Domestic Policy Council, seems to be taking the lead with agencies like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture playing key roles. Of course, it will be up to individual companies and organizations to successfully execute their promises.

Q4: Does the new national strategy connect to global commitments made by U.S. leadership?

A4: No. The national strategy was developed purposely to be separate from international efforts. Exactly a week before of the conference on hunger, nutrition, and health, President Biden convened a Global Food Security Summit and announced at the United Nations General Assembly that the United States will commit nearly $3 billion in additional support to strengthen global food security. The United States has long been a leader in addressing global hunger and malnutrition issues, including working on the compounding effects of multiple protracted conflicts, supply chain issues, climate change, and grain and fertilizer challenges due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While there are some U.S. agencies that work on both domestic and international food and nutrition security, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the strategies and approaches are distinctly separate.

Q5: Did the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health receive any criticism from stakeholders?

A5: There was a lot of criticism leveled at the conference. Although the White House prided itself on hosting listening sessions, very little information was given during the calls on direct questions related to conference planning or the strategy. Organizers often referred back to the five pillars listed in the strategy and insisted that marginalized voices were being included in the strategy, event, and execution, but they were not able to give concrete details. Invitations to the conference, including to members of Congress, were handed out at the last minute. The wrong link to the livestream was sent out the morning of the conference, which started 45 minutes late, and there were several technical glitches for the thousands watching online. The lack of bipartisan support was painfully clear. And then there was Biden’s gaffe of calling out for the recently deceased Congresswoman Jackie Walorski (R-IN)—a blunder that the White House spokesperson refused to directly acknowledge except to say that Walorski was “top of mind” for Biden.

Critics have unfavorably compared the outcomes of Biden’s conference to Nixon’s conference, which culminated in the creation and expansion of programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the National School Breakfast and Lunch Program. But it is important to remember that these new programs did not happen overnight—they took years to implement after the conference. WIC, for example, was written into law in 1972, three years after Nixon’s conference, and the National School Breakfast Program had already begun by 1969. Beyond a wide-reaching strategy and large-scale commitments, the Biden White House conference could lead to lasting impact. Time, and political will, will tell.

Kimberly Flowers is a non-resident senior associate for the Global Food Security Program and Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Kimberly Flowers
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Humanitarian Agenda and Global Food and Water Security Program