"We are all Citizen Eaters!"
An amazing day for food fighters at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health
People of Substack!
Last Tuesday night I flew from Puerto Rico to Washington DC, a day before I had the honor of speaking at the first White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in over 50 years! I was part of a day-long conversation, sharing the stage and the room with so many (over 600!) inspiring people: cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, and fellow food fighters. People like Dr. Marion Nestle, one of the smartest people I know, and Sam Kass, such an influential voice from the Obama Administration, Jimmieka Mills, the co-founder of Equitable Spaces, who spoke about her own life experience, and my friend and mentor Robert Egger, who founded DC Central Kitchen. It was a fantastic day filled with people who care so much about making meaningful food policy changes happen.
I am so grateful to President Biden and the champions in Congress from both chambers and both parties, especially the House hunger caucus – led by my friend Jim McGovern and the late, and dearly missed, Jackie Walorski, as well as Senators Booker and Braun, for making this day happen so that we can change the way we see our food system in this country.
In his powerful opening remarks, President Biden talked about his new national strategy on hunger, nutrition and health, including the need for Congress to permanently extend the child tax credit, to raise the minimum wage and expand nutrition assistance programs to help reduce hunger rates. Pillar II in particular makes a lot of sense, working to integrate nutrition into our health care and educational systems to make sure it is at the root of our understanding of health.
He called on all of us to play a part in making this happen: “That’s why we’re here today,” he told the room of 600 people or so. “Whether we’re talking about food and farming, or solving hunger, or diet-related factors like obesity and heart disease, we all must be citizens eaters, as the Center for a Livable Future calls folks actively engaged in food systems.”
I love it! Citizen Eaters! We must act on the President’s national strategy to pursue a whole government transformation of our food system. To me, we should go further to create a new federal agency, the National Food Agency, with the mission of ensuring the safety of our food supply…and also ensuring that all Americans have access to fresh, healthy, and nourishing food.
I think my friend Jim McGovern may have put it best when he said that hunger should be illegal. I truly believe that. In his speech he summed it up perfectly: “The world is full of abundance, and we need to break down the barriers that keep people from getting the nourishment their bodies and souls need.” Yes! A hundred times yes.
One of the most meaningful takeaways from the Conference for me was when President Biden set a goal for our nation to reach universal free school breakfast and lunch. To have this declared a national priority by the President of the United States is a big big deal.
Our public schools are the heart of our communities in red and blue America, across rural and urban areas. It’s time we saw their potential beyond the vital work of educating our children. Because schools can also improve food health for whole communities.
To do that, we need to invest in our nation’s school kitchens…so that every school can prepare nutritious and tasty meals…universal free breakfast and lunch for all children. These upgraded school kitchens can serve as community kitchens in times of disaster, placing them at the heart of our country’s food health – not treating them like an after-thought!
And they should be staffed with trained food service professionals…purchasing food from local farms, in the process improving the quality of school lunches to live up to our own nutritional guidelines (a lot like my friend Dan Giuisti is doing with Brigaid!) As I wrote on Longer Tables last week, I believe that a National Food Agency would break down a lot of these barriers and create a central food policy on the urgent needs of our citizens. Its priority would be to advocate for the food needs of our people. The new agency would bring together the nutritional programs of the USDA…as well as the food safety focus of the FDA. And it would serve as the lead for food and water in partnership with FEMA and USAID…in response to domestic and international crises.
Systemic change is never easy. But it is necessary right now, for the future of our country and our planet. It is also deeply popular. New polling data shows that 89% of Americans agree or strongly agree with the statement that…nobody should go hungry in this country. On top of that, 61% say that government assistance to address hunger and nutrition should be increased.
At the close of Wednesday's conference I was thinking, “Wow, we pulled it off,” but also, “What will come next?” Can we keep on track and bring to life the ideas proposed on Wednesday? It is a sentiment shared by Jim McGovern, who told the crowd: “What happens today is important, but what happens tomorrow is even more important.”
So what can you do to help hold everyone at the Conference accountable for our words? You can push for legislation like the bipartisan Food Donation Improvement Act, which has the potential to reduce food waste by making it easier for food businesses to donate food to communities in need. You can read more about it, sign a petition and learn how to email your senator to support the Act by clicking here.
If you have the time and want to dig in a little more, visit the White House Website and learn more about the Conference and maybe watch some different speeches and panel segments there. Stay involved, stay focused, and stay with me in our food fight!
Amigos, I have to agree with all my heart that today is not the end of this effort…It is just the beginning. It is a launching pad for great ideas. It is a call to action for real solutions. It is a reminder that if we are successful today and in the months and years to come…then we will not need to wait for a third White House food conference…to say we put an end to hunger and nutrition insecurity, once and for all, to say we built a longer table where all of us can come together and eat.