White House Holds Historic Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health

Key stakeholders in food and healthcare gathered with policymakers at the event

At the first White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in over 50 years, President Joe Biden presented a new national strategy for combating hunger, improving healthy eating, and reducing diet-related disease by 2030 in the U.S.

The president said public and private partners in health care must work to: improve Americans’ access to healthy food; better integrate nutrition with health care; make nutritional information as transparent as possible; and invest more in nutrition and food security research.

And that would only be the start.

“There's so much more in our strategy,” Biden said during opening remarks at the conference, held on September 28. “There's so much more in our imagination, but one thing is clear. Meeting our bold goals requires a whole-of-government approach and a whole-of-society effort.”

The new national strategy included many recommendations put forth in August by the Task Force on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, an independent, nonpartisan group of subject matter experts and multi-sector leaders. Task force co-chair Dariush Mozaffarian, currently the dean for policy and Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, said at the release of their report that “the actions and strategies we have outlined are sensible and actionable, and would create transformational change for Americans.”

Along with other national stakeholders, Tufts played an important role in helping to bring about the conference, which comes 53 years after the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health was chaired and organized by former Tufts president Jean Mayer. Mayer founded the university’s school of nutrition, and the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts bears the name of the former university president.

The White House Conference represents the culmination of a significant amount of planning and coordination by the White House, the various federal agencies, and Congress. The D.C. event, which launched the new national strategy, brought together leaders from state and local governments, nonprofits, private businesses, farmers, faith-based leaders, and youth advocates, as well as researchers and healthcare providers to “unite around a vision” proposed in the national strategy, in the words of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “Changes are crucial,” he said. “However, the federal government cannot do them alone.”

To achieve its goals of ending hunger, improving nutrition and physical activity, and reducing diet-related diseases by 2030, the Biden administration seeks to make the Child Tax Credit permanent, provide free meals for all students during and outside of the school year, expand access and healthy eating in the federal nutrition programs, create healthcare programs that support food as medicine interventions, advance nutrition science, create new package labeling and targets for reducing sodium and added sugar, and more.

Speakers and attendees at the Conference focused on the twin problems of hunger and poor nutrition, which are often flip sides of the same coin for individuals and families.

“We have the biggest military, but we lead industrial nations in diet-related diseases,” said Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who supported the Conference along with Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, Senator Mike Braun of Indiana, and the late Representative Jackie Walorski of Indiana. “Half of our population right now is diabetic or pre-diabetic. Black Americans are 77 percent more likely to get diabetes and twice as likely to die from it,” said Booker.

“There's no one in this room that does not know someone going through a chronic disease,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who spoke at the Conference. He recounted to audience members that after two months of following a plant-based diet, his diabetic mother was able to go off insulin — this, after seven years of regular injections. “Chronic disease hijacks your life.”

At a session titled “Making Healthy Choices,” Susan Mayne, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), explained the range of impacts of proper food labeling: “When we put things on the label… it empowers consumers with information…and leads to many industries wanting to reformulate their products to make them healthier.” When the FDA required trans fats to be listed on nutrition labels, for example, population trans fat intake dropped 80 percent, Mayne said.

Chair of the House Appropriations Committee Rosa DeLauro gave a rousing speech during afternoon plenaries. “We can do this,” she said. “And I'm going to say this to the administration: Strategies are laid out. Put it in the 2024 budget, so that we can deal with it, and move on it in the Congress. Let us then take it from there.”

“We live in a country where hunger absolutely does not need to be a problem,” said 17-year-old high school senior and healthy-living advocate Avani Rai, in a conversation with Domestic Policy Advisor Susan E. Rice. “We have the capabilities to make a difference to end hunger. It’s a choice that we have to make, but a choice that we have to make all together.”

It remains to be seen what specific policies will be implemented by the administration and Congress in the coming months. Mozaffarian is leading an ongoing advocacy initiative at the Friedman School, supported by philanthropic gifts, to ensure that the most promising actions in the national strategy happen. “The national strategy sets out a strong, detailed, whole-of-government approach to fixing food,” says Mozaffarian. “It’s up to all of us to ensure these are not just words on a page but become real actions.”

For Rocco Perla, a healthcare expert and co-founder of The Health Initiative, a campaign to increase investments in health, prioritizing nutrition is key. “What do people actually need to be healthy? It's not complicated,” he said. “If we're really committed to population health and reducing medical costs, we need to put the health care system to work for health.”

Senator Bill Frist, former Senate Majority Leader and one of the co-chairs of the Task Force on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, said in a statement that the conference is a “great [step] forward in reducing hunger, rooted in listening to those with lived experiences and bipartisan action.”

Mozaffarian thanked the Biden administration and members of Congress for their leadership in making the conference happen. “We stand ready to support their efforts and move us forward,” he said. “The next phase of work for all of us across the nation will be after the conference, to ensure continued energy and attention on these critical issues and implementation of the national strategy for systemic change.”

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