Inflation is hitting food banks and their clients throughout Indiana. Photo courtesy of Foodbank of Northwest Indiana
WASHINGTON, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- Food security advocates in the United States want an assortment of federal agencies to coordinate a national response that eliminates the root causes of a basic problem that affects the health of millions of people in this country.
And they hope the way to achieve this will be through the first White House conference on the problem in more than 50 years.
On Sept. 28, the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health aims to take concrete steps toward creating a national strategy to end hunger, improve healthy eating and increase physical activity.
That, in turn, is expected to reduce the heavy toll taken by diet-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity in the United States.
President Joe Biden announced the conference May 4 as part of the administration's initiative to tackle these issues and eliminate disparities that block some people's access to healthy food by 2030.
A final agenda was not available as of Tuesday, but Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Domestic Policy Adviser Susan Rice are scheduled to participate in the event, to be held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.
The first such conference, held by the Nixon White House in 1969, spurred pivotal national changes.
It led to nutrition labels, the first-ever Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and significant expansion of the National School Lunch Program and the Food Stamp Program, known today as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
It also resulted in permanent authorization of the School Breakfast Program, and the launch of a pilot program that later would become the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC.
Over the last half century, federal nutrition assistance programs have grown to serve about one in four people in this country each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs them.
"We look forward to working alongside our incredible partners to maximize the 2022 White House Conference and are committed to taking bold action to address hunger and improve nutrition and diet-related health," Sara Bleich, director of nutrition security and health equality for USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, told UPI.
"USDA has prioritized nutrition security and, as part of this portfolio of activities, we are updating the WIC Food Packages with science-informed changes. We're also refreshing school meals standards while supporting and incentivizing schools that pursue nutritious improvements," Bleich said.
Perhaps as a prelude to the conference, USDA announced last week that it will provide almost $2 billion in additional funding to school meal programs and food banks for purchasing foods grown in America.
The announcement comes at a time when key indicators show hunger in the United States is rising again, now that most all pandemic-related aid programs have ended and people are facing massive inflation to buy food, shelter and gasoline.
Time is of the essence when it comes to helping people and making fixes in the system, groups on the front lines said.
Emily Weikert Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana's Hungry, a statewide network of 11 Feeding America food banks, told UPI that the organization's statewide network food banks continue to see "a pandemic level of need" from clients as food prices rise and COVID-19-era assistance programs end.
Weikert Bryant said she hopes the White House conference examines the broad picture.
"Today's emergency is families don't have enough food," she said. "But food is the short-term solution to a much deeper problem ... so I hope that by pulling in multiple government agencies, we can address the root causes of hunger."
The upcoming event will bring together the public and private sectors, the Department of Health and Human Services said Monday in a news release.
In conjunction with the event, the White House will release a national strategy "that identifies steps the government will be taking and catalyzes the public and private sectors to address the intersection between food, hunger, nutrition and health," HHS said in the release.
Tens of millions of Americans, including children, continue to experience food insecurity, and millions more suffer from diet-related diseases and disparities largely rooted in structural barriers that may limit their access to heathier foods, the USDA said in a Sept. 6 blog about the upcoming conference.
The Center for Science in the Public, a food and health watchdog group based in Washington, posted an online petition in anticipation of the conference, urging changes that promote healthy eating.
The watchdog suggests creating a new post of White House deputy assistant to the president for food and nutrition policy, along with a National Institute of Nutrition at the National Institutes of Health.
The group also seeks to establish a mandatory front-of-package labeling system that effectively signals foods' nutritional value to consumers.
"I think it is fair to say that the idea of front-of-package nutrition labeling has considerable momentum, and we'd like for the White House conference to accelerate that momentum," spokesman Jeff Cronin of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told UPI in an email.
Cronin added: "And there's at least one thing the Biden administration could do with the stroke of a pen: an executive order requiring establishing food service guidelines for the food served in government worksites, facilities, and institutions."
Meanwhile, as groups await answers from the federal government, the need is great, Weikert Bryant said.
Before the pandemic, her organization's budget helped to supplement specific shelf-stable products, Bryant said.
"Now, we're supplementing meat and dairy and large amounts of produce because we're not getting enough in to meet the needs of our clients from other sources," she said.
One rural food bank in Indiana budgeted for $300,000 for this fiscal year, she said, "and they've ended up spending so far more than $900,000" -- with the difference coming from private donations, nonprofit partners and foundations.
"Our Indianapolis food bank had its largest-ever distribution month in June 2022 ... and then they broke that record in August," she said in a phone interview on Tuesday. "Inflation is hitting our clients and our food banks."
She added: "If any of our food banks purchased a truckload of anything, it may take weeks, it could get cancelled ... and we're still competing with retail for the same product."