President Biden pushed for Congress to permanently expand the child tax credit, raise the minimum wage and expand nutrition assistance programs to help reduce hunger rates as he opened the second conference on food insecurity and related diseases the diet But the administration faces an uphill battle.
The conference came amid rising food inflation, the end of pandemic benefits that staved off hunger rates, and storms on both coasts that threatened food security for millions. The event ties in with one of Biden’s goals: ending hunger in the United States by 2030 through proposed legislation, regulatory changes and public-private partnerships.
The administration’s proposed strategy includes expanding nutrition assistance programs and launching more health assistance programs to cover medically tailored meals.
“If you look at your child and you can’t feed your child, what the hell 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 safety and diet-related illnesses to the fore as families wait in long lines at food banks. And people with obesity, diabetes and hypertension and other forms of diet-related diseases have been at higher risk of hospitalization with COVID.
“Many of you were there to help your fellow Americans who lost their jobs, closed their businesses, faced evictions, homelessness, hunger, loss, control, perhaps worst of all, lose hope and dignity,” Biden said.
During the pandemic, major government aid such as stimulus checks and the child tax credit helped the country avoid significant increases in food insecurity.
However, nearly all of the benefits of the pandemic are wearing off, and advocates fear that food insecurity rates will rise this year.
Partisan schism threatens success
The White House’s plan relies in part on Congress passing new laws, and it’s unclear how quickly most of the ideas could 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, have expressed concerns about the conference, calling it partisan.
In response to the accusation, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters, “Well, there are 433 other members of the House. It’s good to hear their views, obviously I don’t agree with them.”
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., the Senate GOP sponsor of the legislation that funded the conference, participated in a legislative panel at the start of the event. But he stayed away from discussing potential bills, focusing instead on private partnerships and his own experience as a businessman.
Asked about the partisan divides, Vilsack credited Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., with helping push legislation that provided universal free summer meals and flexibility for schools on what they can serve deal with supply chain issues. Boozman’s office said he was not attending the event due to scheduling conflicts.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra also rejected the notion that the conference is partisan, noting that the legislation funding the bill was bipartisan.
“There is clear support for considering food as medicine, there is clear support for addressing nutrition to achieve better health, there is clear support for better fitness for all Americans,” Becerra said in NPR. “To me, these are nonpartisan issues. … There are a lot of people with diabetes, heart disease, and I guarantee you they have Ds and Rs after their names.”
Government and business also want to act without Congress
An important component of the White House strategy depends on partnerships with businesses and nonprofit organizations. Private companies have committed more than $8 billion in investments to help meet the White House’s goals. For example, Tyson is committing more than $250 million over seven years to increase access to protein products, particularly in food banks.
“Some of the most successful government programs focused on health and nutrition are built around collaboration with the private sector,” said John R. Tyson, executive vice president and chief strategy officer and chief sustainability officer, Tyson , adding that the effort will expand an existing program. the company has where they provide food bank grants for larger refrigerators and storage equipment to hold and package more food. “This is another example of how an event like this could lead to some innovation in how we get food to people who need it.”
Other groups, however, want to see more from the government.
“We need urgency and political will to end hunger, which only the federal government is equipped to really deal with. Relying on charities will only dilute that effort,” said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy at MAZON, a Jew Against the hungry group “Ultimately, we cannot outsource our collective responsibility; we cannot make a food bank to end hunger.”
Vilsack and Becerra said USDA and HHS will check progress on the commitments.
And there are some things agencies can start doing.
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 on the front and regulate how the word “healthy” is used on packages.
However, any changes are expected to take months and years to implement. Advocates hope the conference will serve as a first step toward future investment and policy change.