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

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Don Hamilton for USDA
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Anti-hunger groups in the Midwest hope the conference yields increases in federal food aid programs.

The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health is set for Sept. 28. But specifics of the conference, including a detailed schedule and guest list, are fuzzy.

For the first time since the Nixon administration, the White House will hold a conference on hunger, nutrition and health, bringing together advocates, lawmakers and experts to come up with strategies to tackle food insecurity and diet-related health issues.

The conference comes after a spike in food insecurity rates across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among Black and Latino families. The aim of the conference is to come up with strategies to meet one huge goal: ending hunger and reducing diet-related diseases in the U.S. by 2030.

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

Details about the conference, scheduled by the Biden administration for Sept. 28, remain scarce. So far, the White House has only released a skeletal schedule, and many stakeholders are still waiting on their formal invitations.

According to Bleich, the conference will yield a national strategy, which “will really describe how the federal government is going to go about tackling the conference goals.”

If the 1969 hunger conference is any indicator, this event could have long-lasting implications for food and nutrition security policy in the U.S.

That original conference resulted in the creation and expansion of many federal nutrition aid programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly 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).

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

The White House held a series of listening sessions over the past several months in preparation for the conference, and anti-hunger groups in the Midwest are among those who provided input during those sessions.

“Overall, our message is, we know what works and what has an impact. And our problem is we've never scaled it,” said Chris Bernard, executive director of Hunger Free Oklahoma.

Bernard says the pandemic has been a good trial run for expanding food benefit programs, like P-EBT, and he’d like to see the White House make them permanent.

“It's ultimately about giving folks the resources they need to purchase the food they want,” he said.

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

“As a state that has a ton of rural space, we've advocated for that for a long time,” he said. “Congregate feeding requirements don't make sense for summer meals and after school meals in rural environments.”

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

With the conference coming up so soon, the last-minute invitations could dictate who’s able to attend in person, said Buckingham-Schutt.

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

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

“There's a very small in-person presence that will be convening in D.C.,” she said. “What the conference organizers are stressing is that we want people to watch all around the country and to put watch parties together and to have discussions about what folks are hearing.”

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

“It should be a launching pad to where we're headed as a country and how we can really tackle 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.

Dana Cronin is a reporter for Harvest Public Media based in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
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