One year after the first White House hunger conference in 50 years, there are wins as well as areas of needed focus to meet the goals laid out by government and private entities.

Vince Hall, Feeding America's chief government relations officer, who was in attendance at last year’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, said the event “ignited a whole-of-government approach to solving hunger.”

“The administration has followed up vigorously with their commitments," Hall told Agri-Pulse. "They have forged innovative public-private partnerships, and they have overseen some very significant policy wins on behalf of people facing hunger.” 

The five pillars of the national strategy to accomplish the overall goal of ending hunger and increasing eating and physical activity by 2030 were these:

  • Improve food access and affordability.
  • Integrate nutrition and health.
  • Empower all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices.
  • Support physical activity for all.
  • Enhance nutrition and food security research.

Alex DiNovo, president and chief operating officer for DNO Produce, said the White House event recognized there’s no single solution to the obesity crisis and diet-related health issues, and that addressing them will require collaboration with industry, nonprofits and government.

Mollie Van Lieu, vice president of nutrition and health at the International Fresh Produce Association, said it’s always a challenge for the government to execute a national strategy that results from such a wide-ranging conference. “There’s only so much that the government can do without other actions,” she said.

“When you look to Congress, and if you would overlay the national strategy with everything that's happened in Congress in the past year, I don't know that that would fit squarely with the goals” resulting from the national hunger conference, said Van Lieu. “Certainly, we have our work cut out for us to drive these goals through Congress.”

Vince HallVince Hall, Feeding America

While the “goals of the White House conference have been met with mixed results in Congress," one win was the approval of the summer Electronic Benefit Transfer program, which was identified within the first pillar of improving food access and food affordability, Hall said.

The summer EBT program, passed as part of the fiscal 2023 omnibus spending bill, provides 29 million kids across the country the opportunity to have food purchasing power when their school cafeterias are closed. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services estimates it will provide more than $3.5 billion in benefits each year.

However, provisions in the House Appropriations Committee's fiscal 2024 spending bill for USDA would slash fruit and vegetable benefits in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and potentially turn qualified WIC participants away due to lack of funding. The bill's fate is unclear; it failed on the House floor in September when 27 GOP members joined Democrats in opposition.

Van Lieu said she wonders if part of the reason why people are staying on WIC longer is because of the increase in fruit and vegetable benefits that started during the pandemic. 

“On the ground we saw lots of improvements that were in the spirit of the conference, but then the congressional action to peel that back certainly was not,” she said.

Another success story in expanding food access is grocery-delivery service provider Instacart’s recent announcement that it has now enabled its platform to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in all 50 states. FNS said online shopping with SNAP benefits is on the rise, with nearly 4 million SNAP households shopping online in August 2023.

The national strategy also seeks to build a case for medically tailored meals, including through the use of Medicaid Section 1115 demonstration projects and by expanding Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries’ access to nutrition and obesity counseling.

Section 1115 projects that allow Medicaid dollars to be spent on fruit and vegetables could ultimately lead to shifting some government spending from treating health conditions to preventative care. Section 1115 projects are managed by states using federal waivers.

As part of last year’s event, the American Heart Association and the Rockefeller Foundation, with inaugural supporter Kroger, committed to raising $250 million for a national Food is Medicine Research Initiative to provide the scientific evidence that FIM programs are a cost-effective way to improve health.  

Mitch Elkind, AHA chief clinical science officer, told Agri-Pulse the initiative continues to seek additional supporters to meet the $250 million goal; only $50 million to $100 million has been secured as of now. “We think this is the kind of effort that needs to be treated" like a drug development program, he said. Developing a new drug and getting it approved can cost $1 billion. 

Elkind said meeting the fifth pillar – addressing gaps in nutrition research – will require more evidence than the Section 1115 projects can provide. 

“We think that the evidence really needs to be strong, and certainly payers like the government as well as private insurers would want much stronger evidence to fund these kinds of programs on a large scale,” Elkind said. The initiative will look at short-term studies conducted during a 12- to 18-month time period and long-term research programs with a national scope.  

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DiNovo attended a follow-up White House launch event in March to represent IFPA and share the organization’s 8-Point Produce Plan for a National Nutrition Strategy, specifically speaking to the need to expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for all low-income elementary, middle and high schools.

He’s encouraged by the work in FFVP to expand education on fruits and vegetables. DNO Produce has developed a toolkit for teachers to use in the classroom on specific fruits and vegetables offered. The teacher toolkit will be in school districts in Illinois and Indiana this fall and is slated for Michigan and New York this spring. 

Eric-Mitchell-Alliance-to-End-Hunger-300.jpgEric Mitchell, Alliance to End Hunger

Eric Mitchell, executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, said following the conference that the $8 billion in commitments from corporations some who aren't traditionally in the food security space – showed that a broad spectrum of entities have a role to play in addressing hunger.

As a continuation of the work started at the White House conference, the White House and the CDC Foundation plan to announce this month a new round of commitments for ways to meet the five pillars from private entities and partnerships, sources said.

“There’s a lot of success, but I would say that we're in the midst of a turning point to see how we can even go further,” Mitchell said. “We’ve made some achievements, but there’s more that still needs to be done. And the window of opportunity is getting smaller.”

Meeting the hunger challenge is going to take public and private sector involvement and participation to find the solutions, Mitchell said. The private sector is using innovative ways to figure out how to create better access and make food more affordable, and doing so in a way that also improves equity.

“Policymakers do have a significant role to play,” he said, explaining that it takes policy to allow and amplify those innovations.

“You can't 'charitable donation' your way out of poverty,” Mitchell said.  

FNS is preparing several studies to guide the next reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, the economic model used to determine how high SNAP benefits should be set. 

The agency plans “to include a study to understand if it is feasible to purchase healthy foods that meet dietary guidelines with SNAP benefits; a series of systematic reviews of various topics, including food waste, scaling the TFP for different family sizes and types, and updated food price data; and studying alternative models to calculate the TFP."

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