U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern Previews White House Hunger Conference
On Sept. 28, the Biden administration plans to hold the first White House conference on hunger and nutrition since 1969—a meeting held during the Nixon administration that led to a host of anti-hunger policies, many of which are still in place. Expectations in the anti-hunger community are high for next week’s conference, and to get a sense of what to expect, Spotlight spoke with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Rules committee and a longtime anti-hunger leader on Capitol Hill. McGovern was part of a bipartisan group that pushed to provide funding for the conference and shared with Spotlight his hopes for what it might accomplish. The transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been championing this idea of a White House conference for a long time during both Democratic and Republican administrations. How were you finally able to get it across the finish line?
When President Biden became president-elect, I reached out to his team and sent him a letter asking him to consider doing this conference. I got every single Democratic chair of every single committee to sign onto a letter with me. I enlisted Speaker Pelosi to also make some one-on-one calls, not only to the president, but to others in his administration. And then they came back and began to have a discussion with us about what the conference might look like and what we expected, and they raised the issue of underwriting. Working with Rosa DeLauro, who’s the chair of Appropriations Committee, I managed to get $2.5 million into an appropriations bill to help underwrite this conference. So, all the excuses not to do it were just taken away. And the Biden-Harris administration said yes.
And ever since, we have been in weekly discussions with the administration, Dr. Susan Rice and the Domestic Policy Council have been spearheading it, and we’ve been meeting in person and virtually with people all over the country. The level of interest has been extraordinary. When we do things online, they’re oversubscribed. And when we do things in person, they’re packed. We did a great event with the new mayor of New York, Eric Adams, at Gracie Mansion. And it was a huge event that brought together a lot of people from New York City who are doing amazing things to beat hunger and nutrition insecurity.
So, what is it about a White House conference that appealed to you? Was it just how it focuses all the attention of all branches and government and community groups? Rather than just talking about the issue or passing legislation?
As someone who’s been in Congress for a long time, I’ve come to accept the fact that the way our system is set up doesn’t always lend itself to solving problems. So here in the House, for example, if we’re talking about ending hunger, if you want to talk about SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), you go to the Agriculture Committee, but if you want to talk about school feeding, you have to go to the Education and Labor Committee. And if you want to talk how about food is medicine, that’s Energy and Commerce or Ways and Means. If you want to tell you about hunger among our veterans, that’s the VA committee. We have a hunger problem among active-duty service members. That’s the Armed Services Committee. We all have to come together and say, here’s the problem – what can you all put on the table? So, the idea of a White House conference was that you have a convener, the president, bringing all the relevant parties together in one room, and everybody gets to put something on the table – not just government, but the nonprofit sector, the private sector, the faith-based sector.
And as chairman of the Rules Committee, we’re one of the few committees that has no jurisdictional constraints, so we can do whatever the hell we want to do [laughs]. And so, we have for the last year and a half been doing hearings and virtual meetings all over the country to highlight best practices, things that are innovative, things that are working in communities, or to highlight problems that a lot of people don’t talk about, like hunger on college campuses, or among active-duty service men and women. So, this White House conference will bring everybody in a room together. And hopefully we will have a holistic strategy to be able to tackle this problem.
So that’s what you’re looking for to come out of it hopefully, a sort of renewed strategy, right?
We do not have a plan to end hunger. We have plans to manage it. We have programs to respond to it, but we have no plan to end it. And our systems are totally disconnected from issues like hunger and nutrition. Whether it’s our healthcare system – I mean, food is medicine, yet you’d never know it based on our healthcare system, because nutrition is not even taught to people who want to become doctors. There’s no course on nutrition. Hospitals are great at doing brain surgery and heart surgery, but they’re not very good at preventing you from getting things that require major surgery. Our school system is totally divorced from issues like agriculture, nutrition, and even how to prepare food.
You mentioned both hunger and nutrition. It seems that within the advocacy community, there may be a bit of tension between those two things. Do you think that’s sort of a false dichotomy in terms of the focus of this conference?
I think it’s becoming more and more of a false dichotomy, but the tension has existed. There was this idea that we have to deal with hunger. We have to get people food – no matter what it is, we’re just going to get it to them. And then on the nutrition side, there was “no, no, it’s got to be organic this, or fresh vegetables for everything” or whatever. And so, the issue of hunger became a back burner issue in the nutrition community, and in the hunger community the issue of nutrition became a back burner issue. But I think now everybody is beginning to understand that they need to go together. We don’t want to give people junk just to fill them up, to create healthcare problems. We want to give people good food because it’s the right thing to do. And in the anti-hunger movement now there’s a greater appreciation that the food we give to people who are struggling should be the same food we want to put on our tables and that we eat with our families. Even in some of the most economically challenged communities, the people who live there are embracing this concept of food sovereignty. They would like to have some control over what they eat, what they put in their bodies, how it’s grown, where it comes from.
You talked a little bit about congressional dysfunction. For a long time, there was a bipartisan coalition of rural Republicans and urban and suburban Democrats who both got something for their constituencies out of food and nutrition policy in this country. Does that coalition still exist?
We’re trying to bring that coalition back. In the 60’s and 70’s George McGovern (D-S.D.) and Bob Dole (R-Kan.) worked very closely together to do a lot of amazing work to try to end hunger in this country. George McGovern headed up the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs and raised awareness about the importance of nutrition. And then in the 80’s and 90’s and 2000’s, we did backslide a little bit. So, when we requested this conference, I worked with Senator Corey Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, but I also worked with the late Congresswoman Jackie Walorski, a Republican from Indiana and Senator (Mike) Braun who is a Republican from Indiana as well.
It was a bipartisan, official request and we introduced legislation. We didn’t need to pass it, because the White House said they would do it, but it was a bipartisan bill. I want to keep that bipartisan nature. I want to keep that bipartisan alliance together as we move forward because politics is such that one year, we may have Democratic control of Congress. Another, you may have Republican control, but this issue shouldn’t depend on that.
One of the responses to the pandemic was emergency increases in SNAP and other sorts of assistance programs for low-income people. Are there lessons learned in terms of the impact of those programs? Is that something that we should try to keep moving forward?
Absolutely. One thing we’ve learned is those extra investments worked. Child poverty is coming down in this country. We ought to reinstate the child tax credit. We ought to appreciate the fact that the SNAP benefit is not enough and that the increase actually helped people put more food on the table. Flexibility in programs helped – hunger gets worse in summer months because kids aren’t in school and our summer meals program used to be that if your child wanted to have a summer meal, you had to get the child to a location. And they had to eat the meal in a congregate setting and everybody had to be there. And during the pandemic we waived that so people could stay in a group setting, or you could grab and go, and we’ve extended that flexibility for this past summer. We ought to just permanently extend the flexibility during the school year.
School meals were essential in making sure young kids had good nutrition and parents could go and pick up meals at any school and bring them home for their kids. I think we ought to follow the example of California, Maine and Vermont and enact laws that make school meals universal – free for every child. There’s a lot that we learned during the pandemic that we ought to keep. The other thing we learned during the pandemic was that a lot of people who never thought about hunger, all of a sudden, because they lost a job, they became hungry. And I think we need to appreciate how many people are really one paycheck away from not being able to put food on the table. And that ought to be a wake-up call. Food ought to be a fundamental human right for everybody and not a luxury, and we’ve got to make sure that everyone has access to good nutritious food, no matter where they live, whether it’s in urban, suburban, or rural areas, and no matter what their background may economically.
And by the way, the last White House conference was in 1969. That was the year we put somebody on the moon. I mean, there was a time we used to think big in this country – like, let’s put a man on the moon! We’ve gotten into the habit of thinking small, like we can’t solve big problems. The hope is that this conference will help us think big when it comes to ending hunger and nutrition insecurity. The 1969 conference resulted in WIC, the Women, Infant and Children program, the SNAP program, food stamps back then, even food labeling came out of that conference. I think it’s important to understand that while the focus of this is on hunger, the main focus is on hunger, that the benefits of what might come out of this conference could help everybody, especially in the area of nutrition
This conference will not like, “this is it. One and done.” This is the beginning of a conversation. This conference should set the goals and the parameters of what we’re trying to do, and then over the next several months and years will be about how we implement those things. There’s lots that needs to be done – some Congress has to do; some the Administration can do. And by the way, some that the private sector can do. I’ve had some really interesting conversations with people in the food and beverage industry who have not been known as good players when it comes to nutritional standards. However, many of them are beginning to realize that more and more people want things that are better for them. So, in the soda industry, for example, more and more companies are moving toward flavored waters versus the old very sugary drinks. Consumers are making choices that I think are impacting the market, that are moving us slowly but surely in a very different direction.
You recently finished your annual farm tour. You talked about producers a little bit, mostly small family producers in Central and Western Massachusetts. I was struck by how often the issue of climate change and climate resiliency came up. You talked a little bit about 1969; obviously that sort of intersectionality didn’t really exist, but is that something you’re picking up when you talk to farmers now?
In 1969, we didn’t talk about climate change. We didn’t talk about nutrition, to be honest with you. But now, I mean, it’s right in front of us and to not talk about those things would be a dereliction of our duty. Every farmer that I talked to talked about climate change. This year, it’s a drought in Massachusetts. And the only good thing about a drought is that it wasn’t what they dealt with last year, which was torrential downpours. One farmer said “I could always put water into the ground. I can’t take water out,” but either way, it’s still horrific for them to have to deal with. There’s fungus and plant diseases and insects that are emerging that never existed a few years back because the winters are getting shorter.
Maple syrup is produced in Massachusetts. And people who have had maple syrup operations for years – for generations – are now wondering whether or not their kids or grandkids can stay in the business, because again, the season’s getting shorter and you’re not going to be able to produce as much to make it viable. So, it is a big issue. We just passed this Inflation Reduction Act that has a whole bunch of money to combat climate change, including a big chunk that will go toward agriculture. Farmers are key to ending hunger in this country. Farmers are key to ending nutrition insecurity. And we need to figure out a better way to help them.
Online, there are lots of opportunities and encouragement for ordinary citizens, people who aren’t part of government or advocacy groups or industry groups to get involved with this White House conference. Is that what you’re hoping for, that it catalyzes the citizenry as well?
What I’ve learned is that we have some governmental programs that are good, that work, and some of them need to be expanded. Some of them need to have more flexibility. That’s all great. And we need to focus on that as policy makers. I’ve also learned that there are innovative things happening all around the country that we need to figure out how we can amplify them and get others to follow suit
We have to end hunger. We have 40 million people in this country who are hungry. It’s shameful It is immoral, and we have to solve it. It’s the morally right thing to do. And if that doesn’t move you, and all you care about is the bottom line, we will save boatloads of money in avoidable healthcare costs. Kids will learn better in school. Workers who have access to good nutrition will be more productive in the workplace. It’s a win-win win for everybody.
There are a whole bunch of really great things that I’ve seen happening around the country and this conference is the chance to bring it all together, to set these goals and then to match these really innovative ideas up with the agency or department that is most relevant. And let’s see whether we can get some of these things to take off. And if they do, we will have a conference that will be transformational in terms of its impact on the people of this country. If we don’t, we blew an opportunity. Again, the last conference was in 1969. What the hell have we been doing all these years? And I appreciate the Biden-Harris administration for focusing on this. I have high expectations.