(Updates with comment from White House official in seventh-from-last paragraph.)
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The White House says a long-awaited summit will help end hunger in America within the decade. But growing unease among Republicans could endanger the administration’s ability to effect change.
Lawmakers from both parties pushed the White House to organize its conference on hunger, nutrition, and health — most vocally, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.), and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), as well as the late Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.). Food security advocates and the White House have pointed to that bipartisan support as evidence Wednesday’s session will spur recommendations to transform nutrition programs and craft new policies to end hunger.
The summit is the first on the topic since 1969, when then-President Richard Nixon convened a meeting that made federal nutrition programs such as food stamps what they are today. Hunger in America has changed since then. This conference will focus on the rampant diet-related problems that come with food insecurity, rather than on starvation and malnutrition as it was the case five decades ago.
Roughly 1 in 10 American households were food insecure in 2021, Agriculture Department data show. Those without consistent access to nutritious food more likely will confront a slew of health issues including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, which the White House said it will address with its new strategy.
The pandemic showed just how fatal poor nutrition can be. Americans with chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, were six times as likely to be hospitalized and 12 times as likely to die from Covid-19, early Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show. Diabetes and heart disease were two of the top 10 leading causes of death in America.
Top Republicans in Congress say they were left out of conference planning, signaling potential discontent with the recommendations it will produce. This could spell trouble for the White House ability to influence US hunger policies, especially if the GOP takes back either chamber of Congress and has more opportunity to block Democrats’ legislation.
“What began with a promise to engage stakeholders in a bipartisan process has deteriorated into a partisan gathering lacking the direction and clarity needed to drive significant, long-lasting change,” Republican Reps. Glenn Thompson (Pa.), Virginia Foxx (N.C.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), James Comer (Ky.), Andy Harris (Md.), wrote last week. They are the top Republicans on the agriculture, education and labor, energy and commerce, and oversight and reform panels, and the top Republican for agriculture appropriations.
Should Republicans capture either chamber in the November midterms, they’d have a heftier role in crafting federal hunger, nutrition, and health policies. Notably, Thompson could lead the House Agriculture Committee, which is charged with drafting the 2023 Farm Bill that reauthorizes nutrition programs every five years.
A number of the proposals in the White House’s hunger strategy will require congressional action, officials confirmed on a call with reporters on Monday. From getting free school lunches to more children to starting pilot programs to test medically tailored meals in Medicare, the administration needs to persuade lawmakers or risk key parts of its plan becoming moot.
Getting GOP on Board
The unrest isn’t “insurmountable,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, a policy dean at Tufts University co-chairing an independent task force created to inform the conference. Once the summit ends, he expects a concerted push to get both parties on board with carrying out any strategies.
“Including both parties in Congress during the process could have increased bipartisanship — but it could also have stalled big ideas, because big ideas are always harder to get agreement on,” Mozaffarian said. “This approach, I hope, will lead to a really ambitious plan and then it will be a top priority to identify how to secure bipartisan support for the tough part.”
But Republicans are already casting doubt on any White House strategy. Thompson, the agriculture ranking member, accused the administration of hand-picking participants in the conference to “drive a specific narrative” according to an August letter to Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice, pointing to anti-hunger advocates who rely “on hungry people and the federal government to remain solvent.”
Outcomes may “simply perpetuate a culture of government dependence” that focuses on expanding federal nutrition programs, Thompson said.
The current US strategy to fight hunger primarily rests on aid such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps Americans buy groceries if their incomes fall below a certain level.
Existing nutrition programs are part of the newly released White House hunger strategy, with a commitment to expand SNAP to underserved populations and provide incentives to use it to buy fruit and vegetables, according to a framework administration officials released.
That component is notable: Though nutrition experts on the independent task force clashed over whether to tighten rules on what SNAP recipients can purchase with their benefits, officials emphasized that the administration doesn’t want to restrict what Americans can eat. Instead, the strategy released this week focuses on making it easier and more appealing to be healthy with things such as food education and exercise incentives.
The government relies too heavily on private charities to do too much with too few resources, said Vince Hall, chief government relations officer at the nonprofit food bank network Feeding America. One in six Americans sought food aid from the charities last year, the group reported Sept. 23.
“This country has often lifted up the charitable sector as the partner — or let alone the solution — to food insecurity in America, and that is simply not the case,” said Abby Leibman, the president of nonprofit MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.
Food nonprofits also say the nation’s 40% rate of obesity — one disease linked to food insecurity — has highlighted inadequacies in the country’s hunger strategy.
“The things I’m most excited about are new ideas, bold new directions that we could take,” Mozaffarian said, noting food-focused health care programs, a national nutrition moonshot, and a strategy to leverage the private sector — all pieces of a multi-part report the task force put out last month to advise the administration.
Along with expanding SNAP and a commitment to get free school meals to more – and eventually all – kids, the White House’s national strategy includes new policy recommendations.
The White House wants to expand nutrition programs such as medically tailored meals and nutrition education under Medicare and Medicaid, ultimately boosting coverage for disease prevention in the US health care system. Front-of-pack labeling, too, is part of the strategy. The administration said it will develop a scheme to improve nutrition labels, including by tightening the requirements for food products to brand themselves as “healthy.”
An agenda last week showed only a broad outline of remarks and panel sessions. The White House on Sept. 23 shared more details on a call with stakeholders, saying President Joe Biden, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, Rice, and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra would speak at the event
The White House hosted multiple bipartisan listening sessions on Capitol Hill and invited lawmakers from both parties to the conference, an administration official said in a statement when asked about congressional leaders’ involvement in planning it.
Officials, on their Monday evening call with reporters, said they would engage lawmakers to carry out multiple pieces of the strategy. The framework is still relatively open-ended, they said, leaving space to work with Congress on how exactly to reach broader goals such as enhancing nutrition research and supporting physical activity.
Booker, an Agriculture Committee member who was vocal about the need for the conference, plans to speak at the event, he said in a hallway interview Thursday.
“The first White House Conference in 1969 was transformative, and I believe that the upcoming conference can be equally impactful,” Booker wrote to the White House last month. He recommended steps including mandatory front-of-package labeling on unhealthy foods and requiring companies to reduce food additives, such as sodium.
John Boozman (R-Ark.), the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he won’t be at the conference, after receiving what he called a last-minute invitation. “The agriculture committees are the authorizing committees and they’re the ones that implement all the stuff, and so I think they really, really made a mistake in not including them in being part of the discussion,” he said last week.
But Braun, the lead Senate Republican in the push to hold the event and a member of the agriculture committee, plans to attend, barring any scheduling conflicts. He said he’s been involved in the discussions leading up to the conference, along with the other lawmakers who fought for it, and that he was unaware of simmering GOP opposition.
Braun noted the group of lawmakers most involved in planning the summit never got a chance to replace Walorski, a House Republican who died unexpectedly in a car accident last month. “I wished we had put someone in place of Jackie, but she was so good at the discussion — caught us all by surprise,” Braun said. “So I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Maeve Sheehey in Washington at email@example.com