The first White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health took place in 1969, and conversations among policymakers at this vent led to some of the major food assistance programs still in existence today, such as SNAP, WIC, and school lunches.
That was over 50 years ago. The second White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health took place at the end of September of 2022. The stated goal of the conference was to “End hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030, so that fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases like diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.”
This goal is certainly laudable and a desperately needed metric that we should strive for. In 2020, nearly 1 in 4 US households experience food insecurity. Since the first Conference, rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease have sharply risen in the US. Obesity has nearly tripled in the US in the past 50 years, and 650,000 Americans die of heart disease every year. These are very poor metrics considering that Americans pay more for their healthcare than residents of any other nation.
In the face of a dire health crisis, now should be the time to propose bold new policies and abandon the current approaches that clearly aren’t working. Yet bold action was nowhere to be found at the Conference that took place at the end of September.
The Conference would have been a perfect time to discuss integrating more plant-based meals into government programs and to question current government policy of promoting meat and dairy products. The Conference could have served as a discussion point for why the current dietary guidelines promote products that are harmful to human health, such as recommending animal products whose consumption leads to all manner of chronic diseases.
In addition, given the number of stakeholders related to the medical field or pediatric health attending the Conference, it would have been useful to have conversations about giving doctors more nutritional classes as part of their training and discussing ways to educate young people about the benefits of the plant-based diet.
Needless to say, none of these items were discussed at the Conference.
No one questioned the government requirement to have milk available at all school lunches and the absence of a requirement for an available milk alternative for students, despite the fact that a large percentage of Americans (disproportionately Americans of color) cannot digest milk.
Furthermore, there was absolutely no incentive to reimagine SNAP as a program that can provide more healthy food choices for low-income Americans. As the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine writes:
“There also needs to be a real discussion about reforming the SNAP program so that economically disadvantaged people receive healthful fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and multivitamins—products that promote their health. Without these reforms, the marketers of high-cholesterol and unhealthy junk foods will continue to rake in profits at the expense of Americans’ health.”
Sadly, those “marketers of high-cholesterol and unhealthy junk foods” are quite powerful, and they wouldn’t want a government policy change that harms their profits, would they now? Basically, one of the nation’s major food assistance programs will remain unchanged, meaning that policymakers missed a key path towards making an actual difference in improving people’s health.
A movement towards providing more plant-based meals to students nationwide would also have been a bold move to come out of the conference and could help shape healthy eating habits in children for a lifetime. But the current suppliers of school meals wouldn’t want their profits disrupted, so the role of schools in providing health meals and scientific nutritional education will remain unchanged.
Overall, the Conference was only a bundle of promises to keep the status quo alive with a little bit of polishing around the edges. At a time when the chronic disease burden in the US keeps growing, this was exactly what we didn’t need. Given this administration’s past behaviour, I was not expecting anything groundbreaking from this event, but the stark commitment to the current system was still deeply disappointing.