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Panel urges expanded free school meals ahead of hunger summit

Recommendations anticipate White House hunger conference

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., has sought to change eligibility rules to allow people convicted of drug crimes to receive food stamps, saying the ban disproportionately affected people in Black and other minority communities.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., has sought to change eligibility rules to allow people convicted of drug crimes to receive food stamps, saying the ban disproportionately affected people in Black and other minority communities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A high-powered task force is urging universal free meals for schoolchildren, removal of a ban on some felons receiving food stamps, and establishment of a “farmer corps” to provide internships to young farmers as part of a national effort to address hunger, nutrition and health.

The task force released a report and 30 recommendations Tuesday laying out priorities the group says should be addressed by a White House conference scheduled for September.  

“The task force members are banded together in their unwavering belief in the paramount importance of taking decisive action to achieve transformative change to end food insecurity and hunger, improve nutrition and reduce diet-related diseases,” they say in the report. The co-chairs say the report and recommendations offer bipartisan steps the U.S. can take to reduce hunger, improve nutrition and curb diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

The group’s co-chairs include Clinton administration Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Former World Food Programme Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, World Central Kitchen founder Jose Andres and Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, are also co-chairs.

The group was formed by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Tufts University, World Central Kitchen and Food Systems for the Future to gather ideas from academia, civil groups, government, the private sector and affected communities.

The task force is among the organizations and individuals weighing in as the Biden administration prepares for the first White House hunger summit since 1969, when President Richard Nixon convened the initial conference. The White House hasn’t yet announced a date.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48.1 percent of adults over 18 in the United States have hypertension. Forty-two percent of adults and 20 percent of those ages 2 to 19 suffer from obesity that can put them at risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. The CDC says 88 million adults, more than 1 in 3, have pre-diabetes, and more than 8 in 10 of them don’t know they have it.

The five task force co-chairs say the recommended policy changes enjoy support, but they acknowledged that some proposals will also draw detractors in Congress.

For example, the report calls for removing the ban on eligibility for people with convictions for drugs and other felonies for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., has sought removal of the drug ban for several years, arguing, as the task force does, that the enforcement of drug laws disproportionately affected people in Black and other minority communities. 

The report also recommends a return to universal free meals during the school year that existed until June 30 as a waiver issued during the height of COVID-19 school disruptions, but it acknowledges that Congress is divided on that issue. Supporters say the free meals ensured getting food to children whose families had just enough income to disqualify them from free or reduced-price meals but still struggled to buy meals.

The task force suggests reducing the percentage of students who must qualify for free meals in order for a school to qualify to provide free meals to all its students, a change that would make it easier for schools to participate in the community eligibility program. The House has yet to vote on a bill (HR 8450) that would reauthorize child nutrition programs and reduce the threshold from 40 percent to 25 percent. It is also unclear how it would fare in the Senate.

To get the food industry’s buy-in on improving nutrition in general, the report suggests tax incentives to food companies to grow, develop, market and sell “more nutritious foods and beverages at affordable prices.”

The report also suggests that the Agriculture Department provide incentives such as preferences in government contracts for companies in various parts of the food chain that participate in programs or are rated as prioritizing social and environmental approaches to improve diet and health. The report also supports a “farmer corps” that would provide one- to two-year paid internships or apprenticeships for beginning farmers to work with experienced small to medium-sized farmers who grow fruit, vegetables and other specialty crops. 

The report walks a fine line in recommending a reduction in marketing foods and beverages that do not meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to children under the age of 12. It calls for the food industry to tighten existing industry guidelines or to produce new rules that apply to all forms of advertising, with an eye on advertising directed at children of color and low-income communities in particular. 

The task force says the Agriculture Department should strengthen and enforce its rules against marketing foods and beverages in schools that do not meet dietary guidelines and should review the specialty crop check-off program to try to support the growth, transport, availability and affordability of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and other specialty crops.

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