A task force advising the upcoming White House hunger conference issued recommendations Tuesday that call on the government to require nutrition labeling on the front of food packages, ease SNAP eligibility rules and make school meals free to more students. 

The task force’s 129-page report also recommends eliminating “lowest-bid requirements” for schools that discourage them from buying locally produced foods or taking environmental concerns into consideration when purchasing products.

The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health is expected to take place in September to bring together experts and advocates to discuss the intertwined issues of hunger and nutrition and how they affect health. No date for the conference has been set yet, and it’s not clear what policy outcomes are likely to result from it.

“Advancing this bold, high-impact agenda calls for political will and bipartisan solutions and requires actions by Congress, the White House, numerous federal agencies, state and local governments, nongovernment organizations, and the private sector,” according to the executive summary of the task force report.

The task force is co-chaired by Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman; former Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist; Ertharin Cousin, former executive director of the UN World Food Program; José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen; and Dariush Mozaffarian, dean for policy at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Other task force members included nutrition and health experts as well as former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and representatives of FMI – The Food Industry Association, which represents major grocery chains; the National Young Farmers Coalition, and the United Farm Workers.

The task force split sharply over several SNAP-related issues, according to the report.

The task force agreed on several steps that could expand enrollment, including eliminating or increasing asset limits for applicants and removing bans on providing benefits to people with felony records or convictions for drug offenses. The report also calls for ending the five-year waiting period for immigrants who are lawful permanent residents.

The report also said Congress and federal agencies should consider raising the federal poverty level —currently $27,740 for a family of four — an action that would expand eligibility for SNAP and other nutrition assistance programs and increase benefits.

However, the report said some task force members wanted to go much further in easing SNAP rules. Some members, for example, wanted to eliminate the program’s work requirements or to allow illegal immigrants to get benefits.

Some task force members supported creating state-level pilot programs that would test the combination of incentives for purchasing nutritious foods and restrictions on buying sugary beverages with SNAP benefits. Supporters of that idea noted, among other things, that other federal nutrition programs are required to ensure that foods align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The task force’s recommendation for front-of-pack food labeling could get significant attention at the White House conference.

The report says the Food and Drug Administration "should develop an effective front-of-package (FOP) labeling scheme that uses or is based on a transparent, uniform, and science-based nutrient profiling system or specific nutritional parameters. This could include key dietary components such as nutrients of public health concern, food-based ingredients, and other factors prioritized” by the federal dietary guidelines.

The report also says that “potential label schemes should be tested in a variety of population groups that reflect the diversity of the United States.”

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Earlier this month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Association of SNAP Nutrition Education Administrators and the Association of State Public Health Nutritionists submitted a petition to FDA, calling for the agency to require such labeling for all packaged foods.

Some lawmakers, including House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., also are sponsoring legislation to require front-of-pack labeling.

The task force report also says FDA should also “update ingredient lists on food packages to make them easier to read and understand, including aggregating various types of added sugars, refined grains, and non-nutritive sweeteners and using common names for food colors and vitamins.”

A task force recommendation for USDA that also is aimed at changing food consumption patterns says the department should review existing checkoff programs to "determine a more comprehensive and sustainable marketing strategy to better promote and support the growth, transport, availability and affordability of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and other specialty crops.”

Checkoff programs operate commodity-specific research and promotion efforts funded by fees on the crops.

While the report calls for providing free meals to all students, an idea designed in part to eliminate a stigma for lower-income kids, the report also lays out several other steps Congress could take, including providing free meals to students now eligible for reduced prices. 

The report also says that schools should be allowed to use some of their funding for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to provide fruits and veggies to kids to take home at the end of the school day. Similar "flexibility was allowed during the COVID-19 public health emergency and could be made permanent, allowing students to prepare and consume fresh fruits and vegetables for an at-home snack with their families," the report said. 

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