Why is the White House having its first hunger conference in 50 years?

  • In Politics
  • 2022-09-28 10:15:04Z
  • By The Guardian
Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock
Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock  

What's happening?

The Biden administration is hosting a one-day conference on Wednesday on hunger, nutrition and health, bringing together advocates, researchers and activists and leaders in business and philanthropy, faith groups and communities around the US.

Just before the conference, the administration launched its strategy aimed at ending hunger in the US by 2030 with plans to expand benefits and access to healthy food. The conference will be streamed live from 9am ET on the White House Youtube channel, with Joe Biden expected to make remarks in the early afternoon. The strategy and conference are aimed at making "America truly a stronger, healthier nation", he says.

But it all comes at a difficult time for many households as pandemic support measures fall away, record inflation and rising food prices (linked to climate breakdown, Russia's war in Ukraine and Covid supply issues) squeeze budgets, and just before November's midterm elections.

When was the last food conference?

The last food conference, hosted by Richard Nixon in 1969, was a pivotal moment in American food policy that led to the expansion of food stamps and gave rise to the Women, Infants and Children program that today provides parenting advice, breastfeeding support and food assistance to the mothers of half the babies born each year.

How bad is hunger in the US now?

One in 10 households struggled to feed their families in 2021 due to poverty - an extraordinary level of food insecurity in the richest country in the world. The rate has barely budged in the past two decades amid deepening economic inequalities and welfare cuts.

Food insecurity remains stubbornly high in the US, with only a slight downward trend from 2021 - but significantly lower than 2020 when the Covid shutdown and widespread layoffs led to record numbers of Americans relying on food banks and food stamps to get by.

The conference comes as the cost of food is soaring due to double-digit inflation, and amid fears of recession. The cost of groceries in July was up 13.1% compared with last year, with the price of cereal, bread and dairy products rising even higher, according to the Consumer Price Index.

Households are under more pressure as states roll back pandemic-linked financial support such as free school meals for every child and child tax credits. Many states are stopping expanded food stamp benefits.

Real-time data from the US Census survey "suggest that food hardship has been steadily rising in families with children this year", Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, recently told the Guardian.

What are the main parts of the administration's strategy?

It includes multiple ambitious goals but few concrete measures, as the plans depend on securing support from a polarised Congress, which so far this year has refused to extend the child tax credit and universal free school meals - both of which led to historic improvements in food security in the wake of the pandemic.

The plan states that the administration is committed to "pushing for Congress to permanently extend the expanded, fully refunded child tax credit and expanded Earned Income Tax Credit … to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour; close the Medicaid coverage gap; invest in affordable, high-quality child care; and expand the Housing Choice Voucher".

The strategy also aims to cut diet-related diseases by increasing access to healthy food and exercise as new data shows that more than 35% of people in 19 states and two territories are obese - more the double the number of states in 2018 - while one in 10 Americans have diabetes.

It includes proposals to reform food packaging, voluntary salt and sugar reduction targets for the food industry, and working to expand Medicaid and Medicare access to obesity counselling and nutrition.

According to Andy Fisher, researcher and author of Big Hunger, the strategy includes lots of great ideas but lets the food industry off the hook and fails to adequately address the impact of racism, misogyny or the climate crisis on food inequality.

"What they don't realize or say is that hunger and health disparities are baked into our political and economic system, and require much more than these technocratic policy reforms."


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