On September 28 more than one thousand people from across the United States with the stated goal to end hunger in the United States by 2030 and tackle preventable, nutrition-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension – convened in Washington, D.C. for a White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. I was proud to join them for this historic meeting.
The last such gathering occurred 50 years ago and sparked new programs like WIC and SNAP. Thanks to folks like our own Congressman Jim McGovern, whose vision, tenacity, and urgency helped manifest this conference, we have a chance to build on the gains of our predecessors using the knowledge we’ve gained in the last five decades.
There is much to digest. Here are just a few toplines:
We’ve long focused on calories as a bottom line goal of making sure folks aren’t hungry or food insecure. We must, instead, focus on the nutritional value of the food people eat.
We must work across sectors and across partisan divides. As Congressman McGovern said during the opening, “ending hunger ought to unite us.” We also cannot allow this work to happen in silos.
The vast majority of ballooning health care costs are spent on treating nutrition-related, preventable conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity which are disproportionately prevalent in communities of color. The federal government is beginning to put the connection between health and food sufficiency into actionable policy. Here in Massachusetts, we just received federal approval to use federal Medicaid dollars to provide food assistance. The agreement was announced yesterday to coincide with the conference.
Again and again, conference speakers, like Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, focused on childhood nutrition – quoting people like Fredrick Douglass who said, “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
We must see ending hunger as tied to social determinants of health including transportation, education, employment, housing, health care, and more. To tackle this means that when folks seek services, there cannot be any “wrong doors.” They have to be offered an array of services and supportive programs no matter where they enter the system, because, as Boston Medical Center’s Dr. Thea James said, “patients cannot focus on their health when they are focused on their survival.”
While adequate funding is – of course – central, much of the discussions focused on the policies which need to be attendant to that funding – like free, universal school meals, which the Massachusetts Legislature passed for this academic year, spending upwards of $110 million.
Ending hunger and increasing the health of the population means that we need to make gains on the quality of food, make gains on ensuring there is adequate supply to those who need it, and make sure that folks have safe, clean, accessible places to exercise.
Foundational to ending hunger and increasing population health are local farmers and food producers, who themselves face huge economic pressures, as well as the pressures of a changing and increasingly erratic climate – often leading to blistering workforce and supply chain vulnerability. We must solve for and strengthen both.
There is much more to come. For now, let me say that I was delighted to join Representatives Mindy Domb, Andy Vargas, and Hannah Kane, and Senator Sal DiDomenico at the conference. So glad to be with them, and Jim, in this work as we move forward at the state level to implement policies that are within our purview.Also grateful for the clarion call from the Biden-Harris administration which released a national strategy as part of the conference work. You can read it here.