We all look for quick fixes, whether it’s for personal weight loss or solving community issues. We recognize a problem and we want to fix it immediately! It’s a mindset that is worthy but often not achievable. You can patch a leak … but if the source of the problem isn’t found … it’s money down the drain — literally! Often we “know” what will solve someone else’s problem without understanding the root cause that created the situation.
When it comes to addressing hunger and diet-related diseases over the years, for some solutions it has been “money down the drain” and the problems remain. During the COVID pandemic, the light shined brighter on our shortcomings. The upcoming September 28th White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health will focus on the end game to: “end hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030.” But the question remains, will we move beyond the bandage approach and start healing hunger, nutrition and health for all?
Fifty Years and Counting
In 1969, the first and only White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health was held. Long term outcomes attributed to this initial event included the creation of programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), school lunch and food labeling changes. Over the years, the nutrition and health communities have called for reconvening this event without success. Perhaps it was the harsh realities of our country’s current health and food insecurity during the pandemic that finally spurred action. We know the statics, but the question lingers. What will we do to address the inequality of hunger and diet-related diseases in our underserved communities of color, intercity, rural, military and older adults.1
The Pillars of Discussion
Cynics and supporters alike may question the value of such an event, but it does initiate conversations — a first step to creating change. The pillars that define the scope of this White House Conference are meant to help identify actions that can be initiated across communities and through the food system. They include:
- Improve food access and affordability: Seek ways to make it easier for everyone —regardless of community — to have access to affordable food.
- Integrate nutrition and health: Make nutrition and food security a center point in overall health for all, focusing on disease prevention and management.
- Empower all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices: Create environments — from schools to workplace — that promote healthy food choices for all.
- Support physical activity for all: Make it easier for people to be more physically active. Built environments cannot be ignored.
- Enhance nutrition and food security research: Expand nutrition research and data methods to inform policies around nutrition and food security policy, especially those issues of equity, access and disparity.
Everything we do … or don’t do starts with a conversation. And this White House Conference is no different. During the summer, entities from community-based organizations, to state and national healthcare and agriculture groups had the opportunity to provide input on how to address the five defined areas. In early July, I had the opportunity to participate in such an event. Along with 50 other participants (representing farmers/growers, academia, researchers, dietitians, non-governmental organizations [NGOs], and business) I engaged in dialogue during a virtual conversation hosted by Bayer. The input was dynamic as current success stories, as well as changes needed to resolve these issues, were shared by those with lived experience.
The ideas were many, but consensus was clear. To solve the issue, the root causes of hunger must be identified. From the impact of financial debt on buying healthy foods, to the lack of safe and affordable housing, or just having access to cooking equipment and refrigeration, these are some of the core issues that must be considered when seeking solutions. Recommendations and ideas flowed with the recognition that systems need to change, focusing on the importance of private and public partnership and coordination. Recommendations included:
Improve State and Federal Nutrition Programs
- Federal food and nutrition assistance and education programs including school meals, Farm to School, WIC, SNAP, or produce prescription programs have been beneficial. However, the group felt there was room for improvement. Suggestions included establishing a fruit and vegetable benefit for SNAP participants like the WIC Cash Value Benefit (CVB) that would increase access; and improving online access to these programs to make it easier for participants, administering agencies and retailers.
- State governments play a major role in improving food, nutrition and health for their respective citizens. It was suggested to look at how Medicaid programs could provide coverage for food and nutrition services for recipients as is done in North Carolina. Other ideas included the need to (1) evaluate the type of foods included in the WIC program to ensure healthy and nutritious foods are accessible to families; (2) align goals of state food and nutrition assistance program to best serve individuals; and (3) provide tax incentives for farmers who donate food, which in turn, increases donations to food banks and assistance programs and promotes local ag economy.
- The coordination of food and nutrition assistance programs to make it easier for families to apply and receive benefits was also highlighted.
Increase Access to Healthy, Nutritious, Affordable Food
- Public-private partnerships were deemed core to address food access. Grocery stores were identified as a key ingredient. For example, create partnerships to ensure there are grocery stores in food desert areas
- Another concept mentioned was a grocery store chain partnership that allows customers to access local farmers’ products through an online farmers market, making it easier to buy local produce. Access to more nutritious food is only one step to improving overall nutrition quality of what we eat. It was noted that registered dietitians in the retail environment can help consumers make healthy choices and provide nutrition education.
Return to Nutrition Education
- Eating healthy is often perceived as a challenge beyond access. What to eat, how to prepare and how much to prepare are common concerns. A return focus on nutrition education across federal and non-federal programs and the integration of nutrition education into school curricula through a home economics course or health course were suggested actions. Working with children to identify what foods should be consumed to promote health and nutrition as well as how to prepare them is a good first step to help “heal” the issues.
Support Food and Agriculture Research
- Food is at the core of our existence and so is research. Even though the importance of research may not be top of mind for most of us, it is vital to what we grow, how we grow it, what we eat and how nutritious it is. Research funding should include dollars for nutrient dense foods as well as specialty crops (like vegetables and almonds). Agricultural research investments for sustainable ag practices and technology innovations are the foundation to healing hunger and nutrition issues.
Seat At the Table
As the conference date nears, the intrigue heightens on “who will be at the table” … and what influence each one will have on the recommendations, new directions and outcomes. Depending on our role in the food and nutrition realm, our “true” knowledge of hunger, or our place along the food value chain influences our ideas, and these ideas are not always consistent with the best solutions. However, if we are serious about the end game to “end hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030” we must get involved. Whether we have a seat at the “official” table, participate virtually, or stop and look around us, it’s time to move beyond the “bandage approach” and recognize hunger, nutrition and health issues for all take time to heal … but can be done.
1. White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, Health.gov.
Bayer White House Conference Convening Report — Public comments submitted to White House Conference organizers