Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pushed back Wednesday against criticism of a White House hunger conference from key Republicans on Capitol Hill and touted more than $8 billion in private sector commitments to address hunger and nutrition needs.

The Biden administration has hailed the event as a key moment to elevate the conversation about solutions to hunger, health and nutrition issues, but Capitol Hill Republicans and many farm groups have been frustrated with how the event came together and who was able to provide input in the planning process.

House Ag Committee Ranking Member Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., called the conference “nothing more than a political stunt” in a statement Wednesday, while Arkansas Republican John Boozman, Thompson's counterpart on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has criticized what he said was a lack of consultation with the GOP in the run-up to the conference.

Asked by a reporter about comments from Thompson and Boozman, Vilsack said, “Well, there are 433 other members in the House ... They're entitled to their views, but I obviously disagree.”

Vilsack said he didn’t know why neither lawmaker was at the conference, but said, “Let's give Senator Boozman a little credit here, because the Keep Kids Fed Act would not have happened if he hadn't been supportive,” referring to legislation that extended pandemic-related administrative flexibilities to schools and raised the reimbursement rates for breakfast and lunch.

“I don't think that the fact they aren't here doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't supportive of child nutrition, or they're not supportive of food as medicine, or they're not supportive of the programs that we're talking about here,” Vilsack said.

The Biden administration convened the gathering Wednesday in Washington, the first time such a meeting has been held since the Nixon administration. President Joe Biden headlined the morning discussion, where he told attendees and a live online audience he felt the goal of ending hunger by 2030 is "within our reach." 

Many of the goals in the White House strategy that address the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can be accomplished by USDA, but congressional approval will be needed for some priorities.

Achieving universal free school meals will “obviously at some point in time require congressional approval,” Vilsack said. “But on the SNAP stuff, we can do a lot of that ourselves, or we can do it in partnership with grocery stores and chains that understand and appreciate the importance of getting SNAP families to be able to purchase more.”

For his part, Thompson said he was "committed to reviewing any emergent policy proposals and will make certain our producers are part of this conversation." 

The strategy, released Tuesday by the White House, says the administration wants to revise the Community Eligibility Provision to increase by 9 million the number of kids getting free school meals. Vilsack said he wasn’t sure how much authority USDA has to address that on its own, and how much will need congressional approval. 

One temporary benefit, the so-called “WIC bonus” that gives a cash voucher to families so they can buy fruits and vegetables, would need congressional authorization to become permanent, he said.

Vilsack reiterated that the value of the conference lies in highlighting the issues of hunger and poor nutrition.

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