The Biden administration’s strategy to end hunger in the United States and advance healthy diets relies heavily on a mix of regulatory and legislative goals that may take years to achieve, such as front-of-pack food labeling and the use of food as medicine.
Released in advance of Wednesday’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, the strategy “is really a longer-term vision” that extends beyond 2030, the administration’s announced deadline to end hunger in the U.S., an administration official said on a call with reporters.
The first White House hunger conference, held in 1969, “was a road map for years, decades to come. And so, we envision the same for proposals in the strategy as well.”
But administration officials who briefed reporters on the plan also said a “whole of society” approach is needed . The strategy calls on the food industry to “increase the availability of and access to foods that are low in sodium and added sugars — including foods meeting or exceeding FDA’s voluntary sodium reduction targets — and high in whole grains, particularly for the K-12 market.”
The officials said some stakeholder commitments would be made at the conference, the details of which have been the subject of much speculation since it was announced in May. An agenda that was recently posted says remarks by President Joe Biden, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and others will take place before a series of panel discussions, but the panelists were not identified.
The strategy also includes calls for legislation outside of the food and nutrition space, such as extensions of the expanded child tax credit, raising the minimum wage, and closing the Medicaid coverage gap, among other efforts.
The strategy was developed by the White House's Domestic Policy Council in consultation with more than 20 federal agencies, particularly USDA and Health and Human Services, officials said.
It envisions “free, healthy” school meals for all children, with the first step being an expansion of the community eligibility provision that would extend that benefit to 9 million kids. The provision allows schools in lower-income areas to provide free meals to all students without verifying their eligibility.
“In the strategy, we are clearly committing to creating a pathway to healthy free school meals for all children,” one of the officials said, describing the expanded community eligibility provision as “an initial step” toward the ultimate goal.
The strategy also says the Food and Drug Administration “will conduct research and propose developing a standardized [front-of-pack] labeling system for food packages to help consumers, particularly those with lower nutrition literacy, quickly and easily identify foods that are part of a healthy eating pattern.”
The strategy also says FDA will issue new, voluntary sodium reduction targets “to facilitate continually lowering the amount of sodium in the food supply beyond the 2021 targets.” FDA also will propose updating regulations “to enable manufacturers to use salt substitutes in standardized foods to support sodium reduction.”
In announcing targets about a year ago, FDA said it “expects to issue revised subsequent targets in the next few years to facilitate a gradual, iterative process to reduce sodium intake.”
“We haven't committed to timelines in the strategy, but I think including them in there hopefully denotes that we are looking to actively do work on them,” an official said on the call.
On added sugars, the strategy says FDA “will begin assessing the evidence base for further strategies to reduce added sugar consumption, collaborating with other HHS divisions and USDA to hold a public meeting regarding future steps the federal government could take to reduce intake of added sugars such as developing targets for categories of foods, similar to the voluntary targets FDA developed for sodium.”
Americans can’t always find healthy alternatives to what’s in the current U.S. food supply, which the strategy says “contains an overabundance of sodium, added sugar, and saturated fat.”
“Diet-related diseases are some of the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S.,” the strategy says. “New data show that 19 states and two territories have an obesity prevalence at or above 35%, more than double the number of states from 2018.”
One in every 10 Americans has diabetes, and one in three will have cancer in their lifetime, the strategy says. “And, more than 4 in 10 Americans have hypertension (high blood pressure), which is linked to the leading causes of death for Americans: heart disease and stroke.” Too expand access to healthier foods, the strategy says the administration will work with Congress “to increase the reach and impact of incentives for fruits and vegetables” in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It also plans to work with Congress to extend SNAP eligibility to more underserved populations, including formerly incarcerated people.
The administration also plans to work with Congress “to pilot coverage of medically tailored meals in Medicare,” test Medicaid coverage of nutrition education and other nutrition supports using Medicaid section 1115 demonstration projects, and expand Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries’ access to nutrition and obesity counseling.
Here are some excerpts from the strategy, focused on USDA:
- “USDA will make investments to support local and regional food and farm businesses through grants and other financial assistance for food hubs, distribution, and processing as well as technical assistance particularly in support of underserved communities to provide nutritious food to schools, food banks, and other nutrition assistance programs.”
- “USDA, through support from (American Rescue Plan) funds, will expand online shopping” in the Women, Infants and Children program.
- “USDA will continue to expand the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations Self-Determination projects, partner with Tribes on enhancements to the food package, expand the number of Indigenous and traditional foods in the Food Buying Guide for Child Nutrition Programs, and provide training and resources to school meal program operators on incorporating more Indigenous and traditional foods into school meals.”
- “USDA will work with [HHS] to help states identify individuals enrolled in one program who appear eligible for others but are not yet enrolled. For example, states could work to inform pregnant women and parents of young children enrolled in Medicaid and/or SNAP but who are not participating in WIC about WIC services.”
- “USDA will advance the WIC Modernization strategy to invest in community-based outreach, streamline the participant experience, improve the in-store experience, expand access to farmers markets, and increase diversity and cultural competency in the WIC workforce.”
- “USDA will partner with the Department of Education (ED), Social Security Administration (SSA), and other agencies to increase outreach and awareness of SNAP, including to eligible college students, older adults, and individuals with disabilities.”
- “USDA will pursue rulemaking to improve access and equity and simplify TEFAP requirements for state and local program operators.”
- “USDA will work to understand and address gaps in meeting the needs of low-income individuals and families seeking cultural foods such as identifying options and expanding access to foods suitable for kosher and halal-observant communities, to better address the foodways of individuals served.”
- “USDA will work with Land-Grant Universities to develop a national workforce strategy for WIC, which could help shape the integration of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility principles across the broader nutrition education workforce.”
- “USDA will advance a new Healthy Meals Incentive initiative … to support schools’ efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school meals.”
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