President Biden urged Congress to permanently extend the child tax credit, raise the minimum wage and expand nutrition assistance programs to help reduce hunger rates as he opened the second-ever conference on food insecurity and disease-related the diet. But the administration faces an uphill battle.
The conference took place against a backdrop of rising food inflation, the end of pandemic benefits that prevented famine and storms on both coasts threatening the food security of millions. The event is tied to one of Biden’s goals: ending hunger in America by 2030 through proposed legislation, regulatory changes and public-private partnerships.
The strategy proposed by the administration includes expanding nutrition assistance programs and launching more health care programs to cover medically personalized meals.
“If you’re looking after your kid and you can’t feed him, what the hell else does it matter?” Biden said.
“In America, no child should go to bed hungry. No parent should die from a preventable disease,” he said.
His remarks focused on the pandemic, which has brought food security and diet-related illnesses to the fore as families wait in long lines at food banks. And those with obesity, diabetes and hypertension and other forms of diet-related diseases had an increased risk of hospitalization with COVID.
“So many of you were there to help your fellow Americans who lost their jobs, closed their businesses, faced eviction, homelessness, hunger, loss, control, perhaps worst of all, lost hope and dignity Biden said.
During the pandemic, major government assistance such as stimulus checks and the child tax credit helped the country prevent a significant increase in food insecurity.
However, almost all of the benefits of the pandemic are wearing off, and advocates fear that levels of food insecurity will increase this year.
Partisan fragmentation threatens success
The White House plan partly relies on Congress to pass new laws, and it’s unclear how quickly most of the ideas can become reality, as Republicans oppose many of the recommendations.
GOP Reps. Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania and Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the top Republicans on committees that draft food and nutrition legislation, expressed concern about the conference, calling it partisan.
In response to the accusation, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters, “Well, there are 433 more members of the House. It’s good to hear their opinions, I obviously don’t agree.’
Sen. Mike Brown, R-Ind., the Senate GOP sponsor of the legislation funding the conference, participated in a legislative panel at the start of the event. But he stayed away from discussing potential accounts, focusing instead on private partnerships and his own experience as a business owner.
When asked about the partisan divide, Vilsack credited Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., with helping push legislation that provided universal free summer meals and flexibility for schools on what they could serve as they battled supply chain issues. Boozman’s office said he did not attend the event due to scheduling conflicts.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra also dismissed the idea that the conference was partisan, noting that the legislation funding the bill is bipartisan.
“There’s clear support for seeing food as medicine, there’s clear support for addressing nutrition to get you better health, there’s clear support for more fitness for all Americans,” Becerra told NPR. “To me, these are non-partisan issues … There are a lot of people who suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and I guarantee you they have Ds and Rs after their names.”
The government and companies also want to act without Congress
A key component of the White House strategy relies on partnerships with companies and nonprofits. Private companies have invested more than $8 billion to help achieve the White House’s goals. For example, Tyson is committing over $250 million over seven years to increase access to protein products, particularly at food banks.
“Some of the most successful government programs focused on health and nutrition have been built around collaboration with the private sector,” said John R. Tyson, executive vice president and strategy officer and chief sustainability officer at Tyson, adding that the effort will expand an existing program the poultry processor provides grants to food banks for larger refrigerators and storage equipment to store and package more food. “It’s another example of how an event like this can potentially lead to some innovation about how we get food to the people who need it.”
Vilsack said the USDA and other agencies will be checking the progress of the commitments.
And there are some things agencies can start with.
USDA has some flexibility to expand a program which allows schools in low-income areas to provide free meals. The Food and Drug Administration will also begin looking at changes to nutrition labels to put them up front and regulate how the word “healthy” is used on packages.
However, the implementation of all the changes is expected to take months and years. Advocates hope the conference will serve as a first step toward future investment and policy changes.