Biden’s hunger and nutrition goals confront November realities
Historically high food prices and a protracted infant formula food safety crisis — issues that were easy targets for Republicans ahead of the election — also hampered the administration heading into the conference.
“The President’s number one economic priority is fighting inflation and lowering prices for Americans. This month, we have seen some welcome moderation in food price increases at the grocery store. But we know the prices are still too high,” a Biden administration official said during a briefing with reporters.
Noreen Springstead, executive director of anti-hunger organization WhyHunger, hopes the conference will produce lasting results, but said unless there’s a « massive paradigm shift » it’s hard to see. how the United States is achieving one of Biden’s longer-term goals — ending hunger by 2030 — especially since food inflation is hitting families so hard right now.
« If you’re a single mom with three kids and you have to put food on the table and pay rent and gas for the car, that’s just not feasible, » Springstead said.
Biden will unveil a series of executive actions and policies to address hunger, nutrition and health disparities, including guidelines for the Food and Drug Administration to deploy voluntary nutrition counseling and for agencies to coordinate better to expand participation in federal nutrition programs.
But the crux of the president’s plan hinges on calling for Congress to pass legislation, including efforts to increase access to key nutrition programs and increase the number of children who can receive free school meals. – the subject of a protracted political struggle in Congress. Details about the summit had been sparse in recent days, and many key congressional offices have yet to read the specific plans. Finally, Biden will encourage private and philanthropic groups to help achieve a list of long-term goals, like ending hunger in the United States by 2030.
Biden administration official says president pledged to ‘push’ Congress to pass specific legislation to address food insecurity and health disparities, including extending tax credit for expanded children.
Lawmakers and advocates still have high expectations for the meeting, only the second since 1969. The inaugural conference led to sweeping policy changes that lasted decades, such as a major expansion of government nutrition programs like food stamps. Matching that could be a challenge, given the short planning window and organizing process that one person on an initial White House stakeholder call described as « a clusterfuck. » White House officials strongly push back against this characterization.
Vulnerable Democrats on Capitol Hill hope the president will focus on what the administration is doing to bring down food prices, as demand at many food banks across the country is higher than at any point in the pandemic.
« That’s my hope, » said a House Democrat, who asked to speak anonymously in order to be candid. « But they didn’t tell us anything. »
The White House conference agenda, which the administration released last Friday, includes topics on ensuring affordable food for all children and families.
The conference, which Obama administration officials resisted, barely took place during Biden’s tenure. White House officials were interested in the idea amid months of back-and-forth with lawmakers, according to six people familiar with the plans, including three Biden officials.
In the end, it was a call from the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who put the event on the books, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said at an event with Pelosi in August. White House officials dispute this framing. Congress also approved $2.5 million in funding for the meeting and pushed the White House to develop a national strategy to address hunger, nutrition and health disparities in the years ahead.
Pelosi, at the event with McGovern in San Francisco, acknowledged some of the private concerns of vulnerable Democrats who fear that a conference on food insecurity a few weeks before the midterms could be an attack announcement from the GOP in waiting to happen. And she held on.
« It’s like saying to the country, ‘This is our priority,' » Pelosi said. « It’s a big departure from the question of, ‘What is the most politically advantageous conference we can have?' »
A Democrat involved in the planning has pushed back against the idea that it would be politically dangerous to elevate food access and affordability issues so close to midterms in a context of high food prices.
“The talk is going to talk about families struggling to feed themselves,” the person said. « And if that’s the concern of what’s happening in the country right now, then this conference is an incredible opportunity to shine a light on the work that Democrats are doing to address the issue. »
Biden officials balanced a wide range of private sector and nonprofit groups vying for influence among thousands of stakeholders trying to help shape the conference. Any resulting new regulations that are likely to have major impacts on a range of issues, from food labeling to dietary advice to federal nutritional benefits. A range of businesses and philanthropic groups are also set to unveil a wide variety of initiatives and financial commitments around the conference, according to several of the groups.
With a power shift in Congress likely ruling out any legislative action, stakeholders have been closely watching the administrative moves Biden is about to unveil.
“This administration has shown that it is ready to take some really significant administrative action that can advance nutrition security and health in our country,” said Curt Ellis, CEO of FoodCorps, who will speak with a panelist at the conference. and senior leaders in the room on Wednesday. « I think the conference is going to catalyze significant progress in administrative actions, and I think it’s going to really set the table on our field’s policy agenda for the rest of this decade, » Ellis added.
Several key congressional Democrats plan to attend the event, including the Senate agriculture chairman Debbie Stabenow. McGovern and Sen. Cory Booker (NJ), two key forces behind the conference, plan to speak, according to people familiar with the plans.
But the White House raised some eyebrows by deciding not to invite more congressional Democrats, including some members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. These lawmakers will help decide how Congress will spend hundreds of billions of dollars on federal nutrition and hunger programs next year during Farm Bill negotiations. Biden officials cited limited space at the meeting, which will be held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington.
White House officials and congressional Democrats say the conference will help advance future legislation, but lawmakers and Democratic aides admit no major bills are expected to be introduced in Congress until November, including legislation key on the reauthorization of infant nutrition that has already been presented in the House.
Despite some internal tensions over the call, several vulnerable congressional Democrats and their aides say they aren’t paying much attention to the conference ahead of tough races.
« A White House conference on food insecurity just won’t make the headlines, so I don’t think people will really be outraged about it, » said a Democratic Hill aide.
« Especially when DeSantis is shipping humans, » the person added, referring to Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who ships migrants to Democratic-controlled communities.
Scarce details and questions about the potential scope of Biden’s executive actions have also angered congressional Republicans, who are already criticizing the Biden administration for using pandemic authorities to broadly expand access to the federal nutrition program.
« To say we’ve been left behind is an understatement, » a Republican Hill aide said.
Serious breakdowns in federal food safety oversight amid the lingering infant formula crisis are also top of mind for some advocates ahead of the conference. A series of failures in the federal response leading up to the crisis, particularly at the FDA, helped trigger two separate reviews of the agency’s beleaguered food division.
« They compartmentalize the big conference and the dysfunction that’s going on with the FDA food program, » said Brian Ronholm, former deputy assistant secretary for food safety in the Department of Agriculture during the Obama administration.
Susan Mayne, a senior FDA official who oversees a significant portion of the food program and has been involved in the infant formula response after months of delays, is expected to attend and speak at the conference, though she will not not included among a list of keynote speakers, the White House announced last week.