Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) have introduced legislation calling for a second White House Conference on Nutrition. They are correct; it is time.

The first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health was conducted by President Richard Nixon in 1969. President Nixon called it a “moral imperative.”  He continued: “This nation cannot long continue to live with its conscience if millions of its own people are unbale to get an adequate diet.”

In 1968, the United States Senate created the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs chaired by Senator George McGovern (D-SD.)  (Jim McGovern and George McGovern are not related.) The Select Committee, to quote the New York Times “led the war against hunger.” Under the leadership of the Select Committee the Food Stamp Program (now SNAP) was greatly expanded, along with the school lunch and breakfast programs. The Supplemental Feeding Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) was created. The enemy was hunger.

(Ironically, in 1972, the Democratic nominee for president was Sen. George McGovern against President Nixon. Nixon won by a landslide but McGovern frequently quoted Nixon on hunger.)

Then in 1977 the Select Committee published two editions of Dietary Goals for the United States. It was the first time any branch of the Government dared to provide nutrition guidance for the general population. The Dietary Goals were crafted after a lengthy series of hearings on the relationship between diet and “killer diseases.” The concern at the time was cancer, heart disease and other major killer diseases. Obesity was not recognized as the major issue it has become. 

USDA and HHS published the first edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DG) in 1980 and has updated the DG every five years thereafter. The focus of the White House Conference and the food programs that followed was to eliminate hunger. Obesity, again, was not the focus. 

Amazingly, most/many medical schools still do not teach a course on human nutrition to medical students. Yet, at a recent Senate hearing, Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, said the fact that three of four adults in America are classified as overweight or obese – and the healthcare costs stemming from that statistic – should be a rallying call for policymakers. In short, both over nutrition/obesity and under nutrition/hunger are both problems that need to be addressed.

The SNAP program (formerly food stamps) does not have any nutrition guidelines. Should it? That is a fair question to be explored by a White House Conference.

The school lunch program faces a major challenge. It is frequently criticized for serving non-nutritious meals, but it is hard or impossible to get whole wheat bread in rural areas. Then there are the supply chain issues and the need to Buy American. Again, these competing goals can be sorted out at a White House Conference along with the unfinished job of feeding the hungry.

In introducing his legislation, Cong. Jim McGovern said: “Each night, tens of millions of our fellow Americans go to bed hungry. That’s just plain wrong.” “What we lack isn’t food or resources; we lack the political will and moral courage to act. The COVID pandemic showed that hunger isn’t just a problem for someone else. It’s something anyone can struggle with in the blink of an eye. It’s time for us to bring together experts and create a holistic, whole-of-government plan to end hunger and nutrition insecurity. I look forward to working with our bipartisan group to make this White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, Hunger, and Health a reality,” said Congressman McGovern.

An interagency task force is not enough. Finally, as if this is not enough, where does the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and the recent Food Systems Summit, which the USA strongly supported, fit into all this? We need the leadership of a White House Conference to examine the full range of very complicated issues and their interrelationship. 

Marshall Matz is Chairman of OFW Law in Washington, D.C. Formerly, Matz served as General Counsel to the Select Committee on Hunger and then served as Special Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.