The last time a U.S. president convened a conference to talk about hunger and nutrition in America, the White House was occupied by Richard Nixon.
That changed Wednesday as many of the nation's top experts met in a packed D.C. auditorium to discuss ways to address the fact that more than 20% of Americans are food insecure.
People struggling with food insecurity are unable to consistently afford food and more than 40% have obesity, in part because healthy options are more expensive or unavailable.
The Biden administration has promised to end hunger in the U.S. by the year 2030 and reduce the toll of diet-related diseases. In a detailed national plan, the administration outlined ideas such as universal free school meals and summer food programs for children; expanded screening for nutrition insecurity; incentives to help people choose healthier food options and support farmers; expanding programs to feed healthy meals to people in health crises; offering more opportunities for safe physical activity and outdoor access; and additional research into health and nutrition.
Some of these goals can be accomplished by the administration on its own. For others, it must lobby Congress for funding and encourage the private sector to take action.
In an address to the conference Wednesday morning, Biden said the task was bold, but not too big to accomplish. Citing Republican President Nixon's support in 1969, he suggested that ending hunger and promoting healthy nutrition should be a cause people from both parties can get behind. "There's nothing, nothing, nothing – I mean it – nothing beyond our capacity when we work together. So let's work together," he said.
Biden emphasized the importance of food security, especially for children. "If a parent cannot feed a child, there's nothing else that matters to the parent," he said. "In America, no child should go to bed hungry."
He also drew a straight line between nutrition and health, saying that there are too many "food desserts" in this country, where families can't access affordable, healthy foods. "Almost every single (disease) from cancer to heart disease, right on down the line, is affected by diet and exercise," he said. "We have to give families the tools to keep them healthy."
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A wide range of companies and nonprofits committed Wednesday to donating more than $8 billion to the effort.
For example, yogurt-maker Danone North America will invest $22 million over 7 years to provide new reduced-sugar, low-sugar, and no-added-sugar options in its children's products; support evidence-based healthy eating behaviors; and evaluate programs to improve access to nutritious foods. Instacart, the grocery delivery service, promised to bring 10 million servings of produce to nutrition-insecure families over the next three years.
Non-profit health system Kaiser Permanente pledged $50 million over 7 years to screen its members for food insecurity, prescribe produce and promote healthy purchasing options for people receiving federal food support such as food stamps.
Medical, nursing and pharmacy schools have agreed to add more nutrition education to their curriculums.
Boston Medical Center, a safety-net hospital, will build two farms to supply fresh produce to its patients and staff and its prescription-based food pantry.
The White House effort also includes a push to change food labeling, making it more obvious from the front of a package which food options can be considered "healthy."
The Food and Drug Administration Wednesday proposed aligning "healthy" claims with current nutrition science, containing meaningful amounts of food such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds and higher-fat fish, as well as limited amounts of sodium, added sugar and saturated fat.
For example, the FDA said in a news release, to be labeled "healthy" a cereal would need to contain ¾ ounces of whole grains and contain no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 2.5 grams of added sugars. (Nutrition experts note that it's even healthier to eat food like whole fruits and vegetables that don't need to come in packages.)
Food insecurity experts support the idea of expanding free school meals for every child, including over the summer.
The current system stigmatizes children for needing food support and distracts teachers and administrators by forcing them to track down parents to pay school lunch debt. That time could instead be spent teaching children about proper nutrition, Donna Martin, director of the school nutrition program at the Burke County Board of Education in Georgia, said on one of eight conference panels.
Today, she said, many "kids choose a candy bar over an apple because they don't know why they should" make a different choice.
Even proper equipment can be a challenge for some school districts, Martin said, with chefs forced to try to produce nutritious meals for hundreds of children on nothing more than a griddle.
Healthy, universal free school meals can help stop the epidemics of diabetes, obesity and other chronic health problems, she said. Why should school books and school buses be free and not meals, she asked.
If children learn to eat healthy, they will teach their parents to do the same, Martin said.
The basics of nutrition education, she said, are: "If they grow it, they will eat it. If they cook it, they will eat it. And if they taste test it, they will eat it."
Chef José Andrés, who is known for feeding people during times of crisis, described food and the food supply as a national security priority. Improving access to healthy food, particularly during difficult times, he said, can help farmers and small businesses like restaurants, as well as workers and recipients, he said. Feeding people in emergencies, he said, is not just the "right and moral thing to do," but also provides an economic boon to communities.
Andrés also called for a transformation of the food system, providing better oversight of food safety and supply. "Our patchwork approach is failing us," he said.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, speaking in an afternoon session, talked about how he almost went blind and lost fingers to diabetes. Instead, by switching to a plant-based diet, he was able to restore his health and his mother was able to do the same.
"It was never my DNA (that was making me sick)," he said. "It was my dinner."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: White House advances push to cut hunger, improve Americans' diets