What Do We Do from Here: A Reflection on the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health

ASA this year is concentrating on health and well-being as a theme. This post is one of many tackling that topic in a variety of ways.

On Sept. 28, I was pleased to join several hundred other advocates at the 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health held in Washington, DC. Amazingly, it was the first conference on these topics since the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health. The importance of convening this conference cannot be understated. As White House conferences often do, this one came with two goals: one to end hunger and the second to improve nutrition, both by 2030. As is also the case with White House conferences, what is done after the conference (i.e., implementation) is more important than the conference itself.

I was grateful to participate as an advocate for older adults, ensuring that the real and unique nutrition needs of older adults were discussed. In this, I was joined by two colleagues and leaders in the older adult space, Ellie Hollander, President and CEO of Meals on Wheels America, and Ramsey Alwin, President and CEO of the National Council on Aging (NCOA). The uniqueness of this conference was that it was ageless in its approach. The issue of hunger impacts people of all ages, and solutions to alleviating hunger must be implemented in an intergenerational manner.

‘Meeting our bold goals requires … a whole-of-government approach and a whole-of-society effort,’ said President Biden.

The conference included important remarks by President Joe Biden, whose presence gave the conference the credibility it deserved.

As he said, “Meeting our bold goals requires … a whole-of-government approach and a whole-of-society effort. That’s why I’m so excited to see all of you here. You represent society in a way that … touches every aspect of society ... And when I look out at all of you and the work you’re doing in your communities, I know—I just know we can do this.”

Other elected officials participated, including three of the four Congressional sponsors of the bipartisan legislation authorizing this conference: Rep. Jim McGovern (D–MA) and Sens. Mike Braun (R–IN) and Cory Booker (D–NJ). The fourth, Rep. Jackie Walorski (R–IN), was tragically killed in a car accident before the conference but was memorialized. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–MI), USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D–CT) also spoke.

I was especially interested to see a national strategy released in conjunction with the conference that benefited not only older adults but will have positive implications across the generations. This included:

  • Increasing funding for the Older Americans Act nutrition programs
  • Universal screening for food insecurity in federal healthcare programs, as well as incentivizing other private payors and providers to screen for food insecurity and other social determinants of health
  • Leveraging federal nutrition programs to promote heathy habits and nutrition education
  • Expanding access to nutritional counseling
  • Regular updates to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (note: the next set of Guidelines will have a focus on older adults) with detailed national nutrition education campaigns
  • Having the Administration for Community Living develop an older adult Nutrition Research Agenda to identify gaps in existing research regarding food insecurity, hunger, malnutrition and behavioral health issues.

Also worth noting were the $8 billion in commitments from the private sector made in conjunction with the conference. Among many:

  • Sysco providing $500 million over the next five years to improve healthy eating for the communities it serves
  • DoorDash providing $1 million in Community Credits that community-based organizations can use to provide free food delivery
  • The Food Industry Association mobilizing its membership to donate 2 billion meals in 2023 to food banks and other anti-hunger organizations and to facilitate easier online SNAP and WIC benefits
  • Google launching new product features to help Americans access public food benefits and healthcare services
  • HyVee, Inc. delivering 30 million meals to vulnerable communities by 2025
  • Albertsons Companies helping 50,000 eligible community members enroll in SNAP and WIC benefits
  • Instacart launching a major new health and nutrition initiative through new products, partnerships and services to improve food security and integrate nutrition more effectively with healthcare
  • Tyson Foods investing $255 million over the next seven years into anti-hunger charities
  • Walgreens increasing the selection of fresh foods in its stores by 20% by 2030.

The key here is the recognition that combating hunger and improving nutrition and health will require robust public-private partnerships in the years ahead.

In my opinion, the two most significant outcomes from this conference would be cementing the relationship between nutrition and health by providing increased funding for all federal nutrition programs, especially those directly tied to prevention of chronic disease, and expanding medical nutrition therapy services.

I also support Medicare and Medicaid coverage of medically tailored meals, increasing SNAP enrollment assistance programs, and shifting the food pricing paradigm away from unhealthy food being inexpensive and accessible to better-quality food being more affordable and accessible.

As stated many times at the conference, the goal going forward should be nutrition security in our nation. This means having consistent access and availability of foods that promote well-being and prevent disease. Above all, a true national goal should include promoting good nutrition throughout the lifespan.

ASA has a role to play in this post–White House Conference period, as many of these policies fit into increasing healthy aging for all and especially into ASA’s important focus on achieving health equity, including through nutrition policies.

It was an honor to be a part of the 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, the sixth White House Conference in which I have been able to participate. It will be a far more enduring honor and privilege to be involved in successful advocacy to accomplish nutrition security for all.

As Chair DeLauro said, “We live in the United States of America. No one, no child, no senior, should go to bed hungry at night.”

Bob Blancato, MPA, is the national coordinator of Defeat Malnutrition Today and the executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs.