Biden administration unveils plan aiming to end hunger in US by 2030

Residents receive food at the St. Helena Pantry in the Bronx in New York City, on Sept 28, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - US President Joe Biden promised Wednesday to end hunger in the United States by the end of the decade, unveiling an expansive government effort during the first White House conference on health and nutrition in 50 years.

The meeting of hundreds of policymakers, health activists, farmers and business leaders came at a time of steep inflation in the United States. Lines at food banks are swelling. Food prices are rising at their fastest rate in four decades. And fears of a recession that could toss more Americans into unemployment lines are growing.

"In every country in the world, in every state in this country, no matter what else divides us, if a parent cannot feed a child, there's nothing else that matters to that parent," Mr Biden said in an address to the conference.

It was the first such gathering since 1969, when President Richard Nixon hosted a summit that aimed to end hunger in America "for all time."

The White House plan hinges on US$8 billion (S$11.48 billion) in commitments from the private sector to help fight hunger, including US$4 billion that will be dedicated by philanthropies that are focused on expanding access to healthy food. The investments will come from some of the largest corporations in America, including Google, Tyson Foods and Walgreens.

Other actions include expanding nutrition research and encouraging the food industry to lower sodium and sugar.

But some of the most ambitious proposals - such as expanding food stamps (formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, or Snap) and introducing coverage of "medically tailored" meals to Medicare - would require congressional action, a difficult prospect at a time of deep political divisions.

The Biden administration is casting the summit and its focus on food as a key part of its "equity agenda," noting that diet-related diseases disproportionately affect communities of colour and people in rural areas.

Ms Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said it was unfortunate that some of the stimulus measures that reduced hunger during the pandemic have been allowed to expire at a time when food costs are rising.

"We are rolling those programmes back, even as food inflation is at extraordinary levels," Ms Waxman said. "That is a choice that will accelerate food insecurity, not reduce it."

She added that it would take "relentless focus" and "intense organising" to meet the goal of ending hunger by 2030.

It is not clear how quickly some of the proposals could take effect, but there is added urgency, as Russia's war in Ukraine has pushed energy and food prices higher around the world.

In his remarks Wednesday, Mr Biden noted that the expanded child tax credit that was part of the American Rescue Plan of 2021 succeeded in reducing poverty and hunger in the United States.

Democrats were unable to make that measure permanent in the Inflation Reduction Act that they passed this year, but Mr Biden said he intended to keep trying.

"We tried; we couldn't get it done the first time," Mr Biden said. "We'll get it done this time."

The conference was attended by top Biden administration officials including Mr Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, and Ms Susan Rice, the director of the White House's Domestic Policy Council. Lawmakers such as Senator Cory Booker and Senator Mike Braun also attended.

Some Republicans said they felt shut out of the conference and expressed scepticism that it would yield results.

"It's unfortunate today's conference has seemingly deteriorated into a hand-picked political gathering whose sole purpose is to perpetuate partisan ideologies," said Republican Representative Glenn Thompson. "I remain committed to reviewing any emerging policy proposals and will make certain our producers are part of the conversation."

The White House has made an effort to get buy-in from the food industry, which often resists new regulation. Many of the guidelines in the Biden administration's plan are voluntary.

Officials in the administration said before the conference that several companies would be announcing commitments to improve food security in the United States.

Kroger will work with the American Heart Association on a US$250 million "food is medicine" initiative. The National Restaurant Association will work with fast-food chains to ensure that children's meals contain water, milk or juice instead of soda. And Rethink Food, a nonprofit organisation, will work with restaurants to divert millions of pounds of unused food to communities that are facing food insecurity.

More healthful eating was also a major priority during the Obama administration. Mrs Michelle Obama, the first lady, led the "Let's Move" initiative, which aimed to eliminate childhood obesity by revamping the way American children eat and play and by reshaping school lunches, playgrounds and medical checkups.

But in 2017, the Trump administration rolled back several of Obama's efforts to promote healthy school lunches.

Although food insecurity is a problem, the United States remains far better off than many other countries, and food insecurity is at historically low levels. According to the World Bank, nearly 193 million people around the world faced food insecurity last year.

A report from the Agriculture Department this month found that about 90 per cent of US households were food secure last year, while about 10 per cent, or 13.5 million, had difficulty providing enough food for their family members. NYTIMES

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