Report urges ‘radical systemic’ change in U.S. food and nutrition policy

With the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health weeks away, a broad group of advocates, academics and experts on Tuesday called for “radical systemic changes” in order to address food insecurity, diet-related disease and health inequities.

In a report, the Task Force on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health proposed a large expansion of federal nutrition programs, the acceleration and coordination of nutrition science research, support for small and mid-sized farmers growing healthy foods and a greater emphasis on nutrition education and preventing diet-related disease.

“The actions and strategies we have outlined are sensible and actionable, and would create transformational change for Americans,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, co-chair of the task force and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

The Biden administration still hasn’t set a precise date for the conference, but it is expected to take place in September. The sequel to a 1969 conference that shaped anti-hunger and nutrition policy for decades, it aims to end hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030. The Biden administration asked for feedback from the public, and a number of organizations and industry groups have publicly released recommendations for the conference in recent weeks.

While the task force has no official standing or decision-making power, it is co-chaired by a number of highly influential people in the nutrition and anti-hunger sphere, such as Dan Glickman, a former secretary of agriculture, and Ertharin Cousin, a former executive director of the World Food Programme. A diverse lineup of anti-hunger groups, farmer organizations, medical associations and food industry groups helped guide the task force’s work.

The task force recommended sweeping changes to federal nutrition programs, such as making school meals free to all students and increasing reimbursement rates so those meals can better align with federal dietary guidelines. It also recommended granting tribal governments the authority to administer all federal nutrition programs and expanding SNAP to Puerto Rico, American Samoa and Northern Mariana Islands.

The report also urged Congress to require that SNAP benefits be reviewed at least every five years to ensure that they are adequate, and increased as necessary. It also said Congress should make permanent the Summer EBT program that would let all qualifying families get $100 in EBT benefits each month, per child.

To improve “nutrition security” among the estimated one in four Americans who take part in federal nutrition assistance programs, the task force recommended expanding initiatives that provide incentives for SNAP participants to buy fruits and vegetables, or creating an additional monthly benefit that can only be used to buy produce. It also advocated permanently increasing Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC) benefits to make sure they account for at least half of the recommended dietary intake across all food groups, and allowing children to receive benefits until their sixth birthday, to avoid gaps between the end of WIC benefits and the start of access to school meals.

To strengthen public health and nutrition education, the group advocated for “meaningful increases in funding” for the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity and the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. It called on the FDA to develop an effective front-of-package food label and to update food packages to make them easier to understand.

The report suggested a number of ways to increase breastfeeding, including by requiring employers to provide paid time off for breastfeeding or pumping, and increasing federal funding to promote breastfeeding.

In order to increase the number of farmers producing specialty crops, like fruits and vegetables, and other foods recommended by federal dietary guidelines, the task force recommended creating a Farmer Corps that would help fund internships and apprenticeships for beginning farmers.

The report also advocated for a number of interventions in the healthcare system, such as increasing access to nutrition counseling and making “food as medicine” programs, such as medically-tailored meals and produce prescriptions, part of Medicare and Medicaid benefits for certain people.

The report’s authors did not agree on everything. For example, the task force disagreed on whether SNAP work requirements should remain in place or be removed altogether, or at least dropped for college students. There was also disagreement on the merits of a federal tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to take part in SNAP and whether SNAP benefits should be able to be used to buy sugar-sweetened beverages.

In addition to its policy recommendations for the public sector, the report outlined potential actions that the private sector could take. Retailers selling affordable nutritious food could expand into low-income and minority communities, for example. And food companies could reduce food marketing of unhealthy foods to children or voluntarily reduce the amount of sugar and sodium in food products.

The task force will hold a public webinar on the report and its recommendations on Aug. 31.