The last time an American president called a conference to talk about hunger and nutrition in America, the White House was occupied by Richard Nixon.
That changed on Wednesday as many of the nation’s top experts gathered in a packed DC auditorium to discuss ways to address the fact that more than 20% of Americans are food insecure.
Food insecure people cannot afford to buy food consistently and more than 40% suffer from obesity, in part because healthy options are more expensive or unavailable.
The Biden administration has promised to end hunger in the United States by 2030 and reduce the number of diet-related diseases. In a detailed national plan, the administration outlined ideas such as universal free school meals and summer food programs for children; expanded screening for nutritional insecurity; incentives to help people choose healthier food options and support farmers; expand programs to provide healthy meals to people in health crisis; providing more opportunities for safe physical activity and access to the outdoors; and additional health and nutrition research.
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Some of these objectives can be achieved by the administration itself. For others, he must lobby Congress for funding and encourage the private sector to act.
In an address to the conference on Wednesday morning, Biden said the task was bold, but not too big to accomplish. Citing the support of Republican President Nixon in 1969, he suggested that ending hunger and promoting healthy eating should be a cause people of both parties could support. “There’s nothing, nothing, nothing – I mean it – nothing beyond our capabilities when we work together. So let’s work together,” he said.
Biden stressed the importance of food security, especially for children. “If a parent can’t feed a child, there’s nothing else that matters to the parent,” he said. “In America, no child should go to bed hungry.”
He also drew a straight line between nutrition and health, saying there are too many “dessert foods” in this country, where families don’t have access to healthy, affordable food. “Almost all (diseases), from cancer to heart disease, down the line, are affected by diet and exercise,” he said. “We need to give families the tools to keep them healthy.”
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A wide range of businesses and nonprofits pledged Wednesday to donate more than $8 billion to the effort.
For example, yogurt maker Danone North America will invest $22 million over 7 years to introduce new reduced-sugar, low-sugar, and no-sugar-added options in its children’s products; supporting evidence-based healthy eating behaviors; and evaluate programs to improve access to nutritious foods. Instacart, the grocery delivery service, has pledged to bring 10 million servings of produce to nutrition-insecure families over the next three years.
The nonprofit Kaiser Permanente Health System has pledged $50 million over 7 years to screen its members for food insecurity, prescribe products and promote healthy shopping options for people receiving federal food assistance such as food stamps.
Medical, nursing and pharmacy schools have agreed to add more nutrition education to their curricula.
Boston Medical Center, a safety-net hospital, will build two farms to provide fresh produce for its patients and staff, as well as its prescription pantry.
The White House effort also includes pushing to change food labeling, making it more obvious on the front of a package which food options can be considered “healthy.”
The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday proposed aligning “healthy” claims with current nutritional science, containing significant amounts of foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and high-fat fish, as well as limited amounts of sodium, added sugar and saturated fat. .
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For example, the FDA said in a press release that to be labeled “healthy,” a cereal should contain ¾ ounces of whole grains and no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium, and 2.5 grams of added sugars. (Nutrition experts note that it’s even healthier to eat foods like whole fruits and vegetables that don’t need to be packaged.)
Food insecurity experts support the idea of expanding free school meals for every child, including during the summer.
The current system stigmatizes children for needing food support and distracts teachers and administrators by forcing them to track down parents to pay the school lunch debt. That time could instead be spent teaching kids about good nutrition, said Donna Martin, director of the school nutrition program at the Burke County Board of Education in Georgia, during one of the conference’s eight panels.
Today, she says, many “kids choose a candy bar over an apple because they don’t know why they should” make a different choice.
Even proper equipment can be a challenge for some school districts, Martin said, with chefs forced to try to produce nutritious meals for hundreds of children on nothing more than a griddle.
Healthy, free school meals for all can help halt the epidemics of diabetes, obesity and other chronic health conditions, she said. Why should textbooks and school buses be free and not meals, she asked.
If kids learn to eat healthy, they’ll teach their parents to do the same, Martin said.
The basics of nutrition education, she says, are: “If they grow it, they’ll eat it. If they cook it, they will eat it. And if they taste it, they will eat it.
Chef José Andrés, known for feeding people in times of crisis, described food and food supply as a national security priority. Improving access to healthy food, especially during difficult times, he said, can help farmers and small businesses like restaurants, as well as workers and beneficiaries, he said. he declares. Feeding people in an emergency, he said, is not only “the right and moral thing to do”, but also provides an economic boon to communities.
Andrés also called for a transformation of the food system, ensuring better oversight of food security and supply. “Our patchwork approach fails us,” he said.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, speaking at an afternoon session, explained how he was nearly blind and lost fingers to diabetes. Instead, by switching to a plant-based diet, he was able to restore his health and his mother was able to do the same.
“It was never my DNA (that made me sick),” he said. “It was my dinner.”
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