In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon assembled the first ever White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health. Its goals were to: devise better means for feeding America’s poor, its vulnerable, and its veterans; to improve nutrition education in schools and, to ensure that food remained “wholesome” amid the growing use of technology. That work, adjourned in 1971, was the last time the federal government holistically evaluated and addressed the state of American nutrition.
This past October, however, U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research, and Mike Braun (R-IN), introduced a bipartisan, bicameral bill (H.R. 5724/S. 3064) to reconvene the conference after its 50-year hiatus. It will gather a 25-person committee of specialists from an array of disciplines, including farmers, ranchers, healthcare professionals, food industry experts, members of the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as members from specialty groups like the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions of the Senate and the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry of the Senate. Senator Braun says the “conference on food, nutrition, and health [will] help reach nutrition goals in the most efficient way possible” by consolidating federal policies, currently scattered across 21 separate agencies. He and Senator Booker believe a comprehensive assessment of the challenges facing America’s food system can help develop specific solutions for the most pressing issues, identified in the bill as:
- food insecurity (limited or uncertain access to adequate food),
- nutrition insecurity (limited or uncertain access to nourishing foods that provide more than just calories),
- rising rates of preventable diet-related diseases in which proper nutrition plays a key role,
- the unequal distribution of these illnesses across different groups of Americans (racially, ethnically, economically, and geographically),
- the exacerbatory effect COVID-19 has had on diet-related diseases, and
- the large financial burden that aggregates as a consequence of these issues.
Lawmakers see solving these matters to be well within the federal government’s budget and abilities, but current statistics point to it being an uphill battle. The Economic Research Service, a data-collection arm of the Department of Agriculture, reported that in 2020 over 38 million people lived in food-insecure households, with children accounting for almost one third of inhabitants. Data for 2021 has not yet been reported, but the complications of Covid-19 are projected to have increased these numbers to an estimated 42 million at risk. What’s more, Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities are disproportionately more likely to experience food insecurity, representing up to twice as many households as the 11.1% national average. A closer look at the data suggests such disparities are defined by more than race—rural counties in the US constitute almost 90% of places where consistent access to enough food is an uncertainty.
“There is no reason that millions of Americans in rural and urban areas alike should be going to sleep hungry, not knowing where their next meal will come from, or with poor nutrition.”
— Senator Mike Braun
The matter of nutrition insecurity entangles itself in these numbers because government-subsidized, less expensive foods are also of lower nutritional quality and, subsequently, are purchased in higher volume and frequency. This has contributed to a 12% rise in obesity in the last 20 years, as well as a rise in Type-2 Diabetes, estimated to cost the US government and insurance companies hundreds of billions of dollars every year. The American Diabetes Association suggests a combined price tag of $327 billion for diabetes-related medical expenses and loss of productivity in 2017, alone.
The Conference has also set its sight on achieving a triumvirate of bold targets, namely to put an end to hunger in the United States by 2030, to reduce nutrition insecurity by 50% in under three years (2025), and to cut diet-related illnesses in half by 2030. The goals are ambitious but signal an important trend in legislation towards systemic change. Supporters of the bill, like Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, agree and believe this conference “will be critical to re-imagine and re-design our food system toward one that improves health, ends hunger, reduces healthcare spending, advances science and innovation, and boosts our economy for all Americans.”