Spotlight Exclusives

White House Hunger Conference: Was it a Success?

Helena Bottemiller Evich Helena Bottemiller Evich, posted on

The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health held last week was historic just by taking place; it was the first White House conference on hunger since the one held in 1969 when Richard Nixon was president. The Biden administration announced a plan to end hunger in the U.S. by 2030 and anti-hunger advocates came out of the conference with new momentum. But will the meeting result in concrete achievements, as the 1969 conference did, leading to the creation of SNAP and other anti-hunger programs? Journalist Helena Bottemiller Evich, a Polk Award winning food and nutrition writer who recently founded Food Fix, a new publication about food policy in Washington and beyond, was at the conference and spoke to Spotlight about what it might lead to. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So, was the White House summit a success?

 I think we won’t know if it’s a success for a couple of years. I think so much of how we view this conference and whether or not it is a success will be based on what happens next and what momentum, if any, comes out of this. Does the administration actually keep this top of mind? Do they follow through on the things that they can do without Congress? Do they lean on Congress to do the things that only Congress can do? We just don’t know. But I’ve been digging more into the history of the 1969 conference, and I don’t think it was immediately apparent whether or not the 1969 conference would be successful. Some of the biggest wins out of that conference took several years.

But certainly, the White House pulled it off. People were really excited and there was a lot of positive energy. It was also a really diverse crowd, and by that, I mean just so many different kinds of groups—you had folks who work on celiac, you had folks who work on foster care and adoption issues. You had Jewish religious groups and Islamic religious groups. It was just an incredibly broad-based event. I don’t know that I’ve ever been to one quite like it.

And do you feel that all those groups felt included. I know that one concern that people had was that this has become such a multi-disciplinary movement, could the White House pull that off? It sounds like they did.

Well, it was so hard to get invited, I’m sure there are folks who feel like they were not included. But in terms of having basically every sector involved—the food industry was there, philanthropy was there, startups were there, anti-hunger groups were there—it was pretty impressive. And also importantly, dozens of community members who engage with these programs every day and who have personally experienced food insecurity were there. One of the things I actually heard some grumbling about was the lack of state and local leaders. We had New York City Mayor Eric Adams there, but there weren’t really many folks from the states in terms of those who actually run some of these programs.

It was a crowd of about 600 people, and I mean, members of Congress, Democrats in the House, were told there wasn’t room for them. It was just hard to get invited. And it was smaller than the last conference. The last conference I think was 3000 people.

And what about the bipartisan nature of it? I know Sen. (Mike) Braun (R-Ind.) was there, but Sen. (John) Boozman (R-Ark.) wasn’t there. What was your sense of that?

I mean, objectively, it was not bipartisan. Braun was the only Republican who had a speaking role in any of the plenary sessions. He was one of the Republicans who backed a bill to hold this conference and his office wouldn’t even talk to me about his participation. He didn’t tweet about participating. The key Republicans from the House and Senate Agriculture and Labor were not there. Bill Frist, the former Senate majority leader, was there, as was the Bipartisan Policy Center. But I just think it’s a stretch to call it bipartisan. It was very much a Democrat-dominated event. And I think it just remains to be seen whether or not there is a big enough tent for everyone to be plugged in on a lot of these issues. I think there are some areas to be optimistic about, like some of the work around trying to integrate more nutrition into programs like Medicare and Medicaid. I think there is bipartisan support for things like that. But things like universal free school meals, those are just not things that Republicans are supporting at this time.

And what’s an upcoming proof point? Is there something on the horizon that you’re watching to see if there is a coalition that can sort of hang together?

To me, the big test is the Farm Bill next year. If all of the groups and the people who were in the room at the conference show up and get engaged on the Farm Bill, I think you will see a different Farm Bill landscape. That’s just a lot of new voices coming into the debate. There’s probably going to be a huge fight over SNAP, for example, both on eligibility and promoting more purchases of fruits and vegetables or dairy. I think the extent to which those move forward will give initial sense of whether or not the conference has real momentum.

There is this feeling that because of the Dobbs decision, some on the right may be more aggressive on promoting pro-family policies. Do you think that dynamic could be helpful on these sorts of food and nutrition issues?

It’s such an interesting question. I heard that a lot in the immediate aftermath of that decision, particularly with programs like WIC.  But I really haven’t seen a lot of evidence that it’s moved the needle in a meaningful way. I have not heard anyone really connect the dots between, you know, limiting abortion access and like universal free school meals or anything like that.

So finally, to the most important question—where can people sign up for your new newsletter?

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