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Key takeaways from Biden's conference on hunger and nutrition in America

President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 28, 2022.
Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 28, 2022.

President Biden pushed for Congress to permanently extend the child tax credit, raise the minimum wage and expand nutrition assistance programs to help reduce hunger rates as he opened the second-ever conference on food insecurity and diet-related diseases. But the administration faces a sharp uphill battle.

The conference came amid rising food inflation, the end of pandemic benefits that staved off hunger rates and storms on both coasts threatening the food security of millions. The event ties into one of Biden's goals: end hunger in America by 2030 through proposed legislation, regulatory changes and public-private partnerships.

The strategy put forward by the administration includes expanding nutrition assistance programs and launching more healthcare programs to cover medically tailored meals.

"If you look at your child and you can't feed your child, what the hell else matters?" Biden said.

"In America, no child should go to bed hungry. No parent should die of disease that can be prevented," he said.

His remarks focused on the pandemic, which brought food security and diet-related diseases to the forefront as families waited in long lines at foodbanks. And those with obesity, diabetes and hypertension and other forms of diet-related diseases have had an increased risk of hospitalization with COVID.

"So many of you were there to help your fellow Americans who lost their jobs, closed their businesses, faced eviction, homelessness, hunger, loss, control, maybe worst of all, lost hope and dignity," Biden said.

During the pandemic, major government assistance like stimulus checks and the child tax credit helped the country avert significant increases in food insecurity.

However, almost all pandemic benefits are coming to an end and advocates fear that food insecurity rates will increase this year.

The partisan split threatens the success

The White House's plan in part relies on Congress to pass new laws and it's unclear how quickly most of the ideas could become reality, since Republicans oppose many of the recommendations.

GOP Reps. Glenn "GT" Thompson of Pennsylvania and Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the top Republicans on the committees that draft legislation related to food and nutrition, have raised concerns over the conference, calling it partisan.

Responding to the charge, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters, "Well, there are 433 other members of the House. It's good to hear their views, I obviously disagree."

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., the Senate GOP sponsor of legislation funding the conference, participated in a legislative panel at the start of the event. But he stayed away from discussing potential bills, focusing instead on private partnerships and his own experience as a business owner.

When asked about the partisan divides, Vilsack credited Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., for helping to push through legislation that provided universal free meals over the summer and flexibilities to schools on what they can serve as they grapple with supply chain issues. Boozman's office said he not attend the event due to scheduling conflicts.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra also pushed back on the notion that the conference is partisan, noting the legislation funding the bill was bipartisan.

"There's clearly support for looking at food as medicine, there's clearly support for addressing nutrition to get you to better health, there's clearly support for more fitness for all Americans," Becerra told NPR. "To me those are nonpartisan issues. ... There are any number of people who are suffering from diabetes, heart disease, and I guarantee you they have Ds and Rs back behind their name."

The government and companies want to act without Congress, too

A major component of the White House's strategy is reliant on partnerships with companies and nonprofits. Private companies have committed over $8 billion in investments to help reach the White House goals. For example, Tyson is committing over $250 million over seven years to increase access to protein products, particularly at foodbanks.

"Some of the most successful government programs focused on health and nutrition are built around collaboration with the private sector," said John R. Tyson, executive vice president and strategy and chief sustainability officer at Tyson, adding that the effort will expand an existing program the company has where they provide grants for foodbanks for bigger fridges and storage equipment to hold and pack more food. "That's another example of where an event like this could potentially yield some innovation around how we get food to people who need it."

Other groups, however, want to see more from the government.

"We need urgency and the political will to end hunger, which only the federal government is equipped to truly address. Relying on charities will only dilute that effort," said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy for MAZON, a Jewish anti-hunger group. "Ultimately, we can't just outsource our collective responsibility; we can't foodbank our way to ending hunger."

Vilsack and Becerra said USDA and HHS will be checking in on the progress of the commitments.

And there are some things that agencies can get started on.

USDA has some flexibility to expand a program that allows schools in low-income areas to provide free meals. The Food and Drug Administration will also begin to look at changes to nutrition labels to put them on the front and regulate how the word "healthy" is used on packages.

However, any changes are expected to take months and years to implement. Advocates are hopeful the conference serves as a first step towards future investments and policy changes.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.