In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic catapulted the issues of inequality in the food system to the top of the agenda for lawmakers in DC. Many Americans were shocked to see miles of cars snaked through parking lots waiting for food pantries to open. For the first time in a long time, it was no longer acceptable to talk about food insecurity and hunger as only a problem of the poorest Americans. Instead, the pandemic presented policymakers with the need for a food system and a supply chain that is resilient and sustainable to feed all Americans. For our most vulnerable populations, there must be improvements to federal feeding programs such as WIC, school meals, and SNAP that are flexible, but with strong nutrition standards to ensure access to quality nutritious foods.

Over the past year we saw the Administration and Congress act to respond to the hunger gap in America. Starting with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and most recently with the American Rescue Plan, a variety of stakeholders including NGOs, public health organizations, industry groups, and policy makers came together to successfully advocate for anti-hunger provisions, including an increase in SNAP benefits, extra support for eligible children whose schools were closed and needed food, and increased WIC benefits alongside important economic stimulus and critical healthcare provisions.

More recently, Congress has been debating the passage of the Build Back Better Act. Included in this legislation are efforts to address childhood nutrition, hunger, and poverty by expanding the number of schools that would be able to offer free meals to all students through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), investing in expanding the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (Summer EBT) program to provide nutrition benefits to eligible low-income children nationwide, improving school kitchen equipment, and kickstarting a Healthy School Meal Incentives demonstration project.

Outside of pandemic response legislation, the Biden/Harris Administration has taken action to improve the nation’s health by updating the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) for the first time since 2006. The new and improved TFP better reflects updated data on food prices, consumption patterns, and the current 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. As Agriculture Secretary Vilsack stated, “the TFP is more than a commitment to good nutrition – it's an investment in our nation’s health, economy, and security.” Now, SNAP beneficiaries will see an increase in their maximum benefit that better aligns with the real costs of a healthy diet.

These efforts by Congress and the Administration, while critically important, are only short-term band-aids to finding a permanent solution to ensuring an equitable and nutritious food system. We are at a pivotal moment to improve food access and nutrition security in the U.S. and the federal government must continue to take strong, decisive steps to creating a more resilient food system.

So, what needs to happen in 2022 to keep the momentum going? To fix the food system and ensure access to healthy foods, we need a strategic national dialogue unencumbered by jurisdictional or political concerns. To make meaningful change, one policy or program operating in a vacuum will not work. One tangible idea that deserves merit is the proposed White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, Hunger, and Health. We agree that this conference should convene this year to highlight successful policies, identify gaps in data, and to align on solutions that could be implemented through short, medium, and long-term actions.

Whether it be the White House conference or another forum, to ensure the greatest success a diverse group of partners--including food companies—should be at the table to discuss a coordinated federal policy. There is expertise within these companies—ranging from nutrition to innovation to supply chain resilience-- that can work side-by-side with government and NGOs to help to improve access to healthy foods and build a more sustainable food system. Yes, food companies are businesses that rely on financial growth, but they are also purpose-driven organizations deeply committed to improved access to quality food or better health, a better life, and a better world for all.

The pandemic has been tough, but it has also provided us with an opportunity to harness new ideas for change in our food system that feeds all Americans in need, promotes growth and resiliency, and drives innovation. We need to continue a strategic dialogue across a diverse set of stakeholders to effectively address systemic problems and inequities in the system. The solutions will not be easy but certainly the first step is an honest conversation about the problem, and we hope, coordinated action to eliminate food insecurity.

Anne MacMillan is an agriculture and food policy expert with Invariant. Anne previously served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary Tom Vilsack and Senior Policy Advisor to Nancy Pelosi.

Stephanie K. Goodwin, Ph. D., MPH, RD is a nutrition and public health expert with a focus on national food and nutrition policy. Currently she works for Danone North America to help bring the company’s mission, bringing health through food to as many people as possible, through partnerships, public policy, and national initiatives.

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