America can end hunger by 2030 by fighting poverty, expanding access to healthy food, and reorienting healthcare toward preventing diet-related diseases, said President Biden on Wednesday. Framing the task in epic terms, he called on government and society to step up. “This could be a giant step,” he said. “This could remind us who the hell we are.”
“In America, no child should go to bed hungry and no parent should die of a preventable disease,” Biden said, addressing an in-person crowd of more than 500 advocates, academics, and policymakers, and many more online.
The one-day White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health came at time when one in 10 American households is food insecure and diet-related disease is rampant — nearly half of the U.S. population is either diabetic or pre-diabetic, and heart disease is the nation’s leading cause of death. Wednesday’s event was the sequel to a 1969 conference, convened by President Richard Nixon, that set the anti-hunger agenda for decades and led to the creation or expansion of critical nutrition programs such as WIC, food stamps, and school meals.
Earlier this week, the Biden administration released an extensive strategy for fighting hunger and diet-related disease, and announced more than $8 billion in commitments from the private sector, medical groups, schools, and charities.
The administration has made addressing poverty a central part of its anti-hunger strategy. Biden called on Congress to reinstate and make permanent the expanded Child Tax Credit, which expired in December, noting that it had cut child poverty in half and reduced food insecurity by 26 percent. In response, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Biden also reiterated his support for fair wages and collective bargaining rights for the workers who “grow, produce, and process our food.” As part of its anti-hunger strategy, the administration proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
To guarantee food security for children, the administration called on lawmakers to expand the national school lunch program incrementally, with the goal of granting access to free lunches to 9 million more children over the next decade, a measure Biden called “a major first step toward free meals for each student.” He also urged making permanent the Summer EBT program, which gives low-income families money to buy groceries during the summer when children don’t have access to school meals.
Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow and House Appropriations Committee chair Rosa DeLauro pointed out two upcoming opportunities to improve food and nutrition policy — the farm bill reauthorization and the annual appropriations process.
Republicans will inevitably propose cuts to SNAP in the 2023 farm bill, as they did in the 2014 and 2018 bills, said Stabenow. “And I say, we’re not going to cut food stamps,” she said. “We need your help, because No. 1 is to not go backwards on public nutrition.”
But not losing ground isn’t enough, she said. “We have to build and build and build.”
“The farm bill is every five years. Friends, appropriations is every single year,” added DeLauro. She urged Biden to put the Child Tax Credit expansion in the 2024 budget “so that we can deal with it and move on.”
Biden stressed that fighting hunger should be a bipartisan effort, and that congressional action will be necessary to accomplish much of his administration’s anti-hunger agenda. But Republicans oppose many of the measures in Biden’s anti-hunger agenda, including making school meals free to all students and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
While the conference was underway, Republicans criticized it. Glenn Thompson, Republican leader of the House Agriculture Committee, called it “nothing more than a political stunt.” Virginia Foxx, senior Republican on the House Education Committee, which oversees child nutrition, said the administration had prioritized liberal activist groups instead of a diverse range of stakeholders to “set up this conference to be forgotten before it even started.”
Biden mistakenly called out to the late Rep. Jackie Walorski — “Jackie, are you here?” — during his speech, perhaps to show bipartisan support for action on hunger. Walorski, an Indiana Republican, was a cosponsor of legislation to hold the conference. She died in a traffic accident in August. A video tribute to Walorski was screened in the afternoon.
In a later session, Jim McGovern, the House Rules Committee chair who spearheaded the effort to make the conference happen, praised the Biden administration for making hunger and nutrition a national priority. But he also acknowledged that the conference was only a beginning, saying, “We need to leave here with an assignment for tomorrow. And for next week and the week after that. This is an opportunity. We can’t blow it.”
Wearing a necktie that had belonged to Sen. George McGovern — who was instrumental in the creation of the 1969 White House conference — Rep. McGovern (no relation) called for a bipartisan effort to “make history” and “transform this country where 35 million people don’t know where their next meal is going to come from into a country where hunger is illegal or doesn’t exist at all.”
The text of Biden’s speech is available here.