The 2022 White House Conference on Nutrition | Our View
This year is a big one for nutrition advocacy in the United States. The Biden Administration has been steadily gearing up to convene a White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health—the second of its kind in our nation’s history. The first conference was held in 1969 under President Richard Nixon, and it famously established many of the federal nutrition assistance programs millions of Americans continue to rely on today.
The White House Conference of 2022, which convenes this September, will focus on five major pillars:
Improving food access and affordability
Prioritizing nutrition’s role in health and disease prevention
Fostering healthier food environments
Supporting physical activity for all
Improving food and nutrition security research
In an effort to understand all perspectives, the White House is soliciting feedback from everyday Americans, nutrition advocates, public health experts, and anyone else invested in creating a food system that promotes good health. Anyone wishing to weigh in on the five pillars can do so by submitting a written comment.
Balanced strongly supports the White House Conference’s aims, and we have some thoughts to share on how it can be executed most effectively.
How should we gauge the success of the Conference?
The goal of the Conference is to generate and enact new policies and programs that will combat hunger, improve nutritional outcomes, and reduce the burden of diet-related disease, disability, and premature death. The most meaningful measures of success should therefore involve (1) tracking rates of hunger and other metrics of household food insecurity across vulnerable groups, (2) tracking shifts in dietary patterns in a nationally representative way, and (3) following changes in the incidence of, prevalence of, and deaths from major diet-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
However, it’s not enough simply to monitor changes for signs of progress. The Conference should establish time-bound targets for each metric and each year following 2022 until the desired endpoints (like zero hunger!) are reached. This way, we’ll know if we’re reaching our goals—or we’ll know how far behind we are. There should also be a clear, evidence-based roadmap outlining how we plan to hit our targets, and all the involved federal and state agencies should have well-defined roles. If progress isn’t going according to plan, we can jump to investigate why that’s the case, then work to remedy the situation or tweak the policy strategy as necessary. Whatever endpoints the Conference recommends, there should be legal commitment and accountability to those targets.
Of course, the point of the Conference’s people-centered process is to be able to anticipate (and avoid) stumbling blocks. For example, it won’t necessarily help to build supermarkets in food deserts if healthy foods are still unaffordable and unfamiliar, or if the supermarket is stocked entirely with ultra-processed foods, or if fast-food restaurants dot every block, or if nearby residents have no time to prepare healthy foods at home, and so on. All of these barriers (and more) must be addressed together. The success of the Conference depends upon this strategy.
What kinds of policies should the Conference prescribe?
There are hundreds of large and small policies and programs that we could and should implement across all levels of government. Such was the result of the fruitful 1969 conference, and we should demand similarly sweeping changes.
Many nutrition organizations and engaged citizens have indeed been floating bold ideas to
fix our food system. Balanced echoes much of what has already been stated by anti-hunger groups, healthcare professionals, and nutrition assistance beneficiaries. To summarize, if we as a nation hope to end hunger and drastically reduce the diet-related disease burden, we’ll need the following, at a minimum:
More robust anti-poverty and nutrition assistance measures to tackle food affordability
Convenient physical access to diverse, health-promoting whole foods and the elimination of food deserts
Regulations limiting the advertising of ultra-processed foods and fast food
Other regulations on the processed food industry, like mandatory sodium standards
Public education on healthy dietary patterns and meal planning, such as in school curricula or through public service announcements
Construction of more walkable, bikeable, and play-friendly neighborhoods and cities
Free or low-cost preventive healthcare and lifestyle intervention programs for all
Policies that give caregivers more time to shop for and prepare healthy meals, like free or low-cost childcare and eldercare
Subsidies for domestic production of vegetables and fruits, which could be diverted away from factory-farmed animal products
Policies that fortify regional, national, and international supply chains and break up agribusiness monopolies
This list is hardly comprehensive. Each of these bullet points could entail dozens of policy options, and not all those options will be equally effective across regions or demographics. Local and state authorities must do what is best for each community, bearing in mind long-term health and sustainability. Complicating matters is the need to balance structural solutions with the piecemeal programs that deal with the problems of today but don’t necessarily prevent those of tomorrow. We need to address the structural nutrition and hunger issues with an even greater sense of commitment in order to rely less on means-tested programs that are too easily weaponized against the poor and marginalized.
Can we trust the government to deliver on its promises?
There are many legitimate concerns and due skepticism surrounding the White House Conference. Foremost: it isn’t clear how tough the White House is willing to be on industry, and failing to regulate Big Food and Ag’s influence in the political, regulatory, and scientific processes would derail most efforts to meaningfully reduce diet-related diseases in the United States.
And in the policy world, a decade’s worth of progress can easily be wiped out by an antagonistic administration. We need reassurance that there will be legal mechanisms in place ensuring legislators adhere to the health and hunger goals—if not to the exact policy roadmap the Conference prescribes. Unfortunately, not all lawmakers care about public health, or they simply care more about short-term political gain and courting the agribusiness elite. We’ll not only need safeguards to protect the public interest but also to remain vigilant and galvanized in the decade that follows.
Yet another concern is the hysteria that can sometimes arise in response to perceived “culture wars.” Is it possible to legislate food culture—and if so, should it be done? Should the government tell us what we can or can’t eat, or limit our choices? Personally, I think this is the wrong question to be asking. A better one is: Should we allow unelected, profit-driven entities, who engineer addictive foods linked with our national health crises, to go unchallenged in manipulating us with advertisements, grooming our children’s palates in publicly-funded school cafeterias, and crowding out the local food cultures we once enjoyed in this country?
Regardless of how we choose to answer those questions, we need to get sober about our untenable crisis of diet-related disease. There are always winners and losers, and Americans’ physical health has been losing to industry executives’ wins, decade after decade. But moving forward, we can level the playing field so that the food system we mutually rely upon creates opportunity and supports health and good nutrition for all. The White House Conference may be the only reckoning we get to make that ideal a reality.
How to not squander this opportunity
As a nutrition security-focused organization, we know one thing for certain: Without a big push to include more whole grains, plant proteins, and fruits and vegetables in our diets, our burden of diet-related disease is unlikely to improve. Hunger is of course hugely important to solve, but its solutions are more social-economic than they are alimentary. While a noble cause, ending hunger alone without transforming our disease-promoting food environments and our resource-depleting food system is still far less than what the American people need and deserve.
Each of us, especially our political leaders, needs to accept these facts in order to not squander the rare opportunity of the White House Conference. If you agree, make your voice heard before July 15, 2022, and stay engaged with Balanced’s work as we continue to advocate for nutritious food for all.
Madeline is the Food System and Nutrition Policy Analyst at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition Science and Food Policy. She works to advance policies that foster healthier food environments and better public health outcomes.
You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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