Keith Nunes 2019

KANSAS CITY — The Sept. 28 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health is a steppingstone toward modernizing the federal government’s strategy of reducing hunger and helping individuals improve their diet and health. The goals of the initiative are to end hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030, so fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases like diabetes, obesity and hypertension. The goals are lofty, and its timeline is aggressive, but food and beverage manufacturers should welcome the opportunity to contribute and participate.

It has been more than 50 years since the first and only White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health was held in 1969, according to the Biden administration. That event helped galvanize actions that included the creation of school meal programs, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and changes to how foods and beverages are labeled. The 2022 conference is intended to catalyze the public and private sectors around a coordinated strategy to accelerate progress and drive change in the United States.

The conference is the product of bipartisan legislation passed this spring that allocated $2.5 million for the meeting. Legislators spearheading the initiative include Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the late Representative Jackie Walorski of Indiana, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Senator Mike Braun of Indiana. Between June 1 and June 15, six regional listening sessions were held to gather input that will be used to propel the conversation.

Discussion will focus on five key areas — improving food access and affordability; integrating nutrition and health by prioritizing the role of nutrition and food security in disease prevention and management; ensuring all consumers have access to healthy choices; supporting physical activity for all; and enhancing nutrition and food security research.

A report issued in July by the FMI – The Food Industry Association highlighted several ways food manufacturers and marketers may contribute to reducing hunger and improving health, including expanding meal donations, consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), to food banks and other non-profits that feed people in under-resourced areas; ensuring access to the expertise and services of registered dietitians, nutritionists and food-as-medicine initiatives across the food industry; and increasing the number, scope and clarity of consumer-facing education messages aligned with the DGAs and are delivered to consumers in partnership with federal agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture and the Food Drug Administration.

A challenge facing conference organizers and those charged with putting recommendations into action will be balancing a focus on improving current programs to better serve people and creating new programs that not only build on past successes but forge new ground. To the credit of those organizing the conference, they are asking for ideas that are “big and bold” and “go beyond what the federal government can do.”

There is worry among listening-session participants that the conference’s impact may be negligible, only resulting in the publishing of a white paper that sits on a shelf and is followed by little to no action. It’s easy to imagine similar fears being expressed 50 years ago when the last hunger and nutrition conference organized by the White House was held. Just like then, it will be up to a broad coalition of stakeholders to ensure progress on this important effort continues.