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White House hunger strategy widens free school meals, food stamps

Strategy unveiled ahead of Wednesday hunger conference

President Joe Biden is scheduled to address the White House hunger conference on Wednesday.
President Joe Biden is scheduled to address the White House hunger conference on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Biden administration outlined a national strategy Tuesday of executive actions and legislative priorities it says will combat hunger and address diet-related conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and various cancers that plague millions of Americans.

The strategy arrives the day before President Joe Biden is scheduled to address the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health where several hundred attendees will discuss recommendations and ideas the White House gathered over the summer. Biden has said the conference goal is to end hunger and reduce chronic illnesses linked to poor diets by 2030.

Participants are expected to announce commitments Wednesday on steps they will take to advance the national strategy.

“This important conference and the commitment to a national strategy on ending hunger and healthier eating will build on the research and knowledge we now have to make America truly a stronger, healthier nation,” Biden said in a statement.

The daylong event at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center is structured under five pillars: Improving food access and affordability; integrating nutrition and health; giving consumers healthy choices and empowering them to make them; supporting physical activity; and enhancing nutrition and food security research. 

The national strategy is organized along the same pillars. 

The blueprint released Tuesday calls for expanding the nation’s largest domestic food aid program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, by removing the eligibility ban on people with convictions for drugs and other felonies. The issue is likely to be part of House and Senate Agriculture committees’ work next year on the 2023 farm bill. 

The strategy also backs legislation to create pilot programs for the use of medically tailored meals under the traditional Medicare program. Administration officials say the goal is to see if the improved nutrition and health in private Medicare Advantage plans can be replicated. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also will proceed with an initiative to give states authority to test out Medicaid coverage for additional nutrition services.

Under the strategy, the Food and Drug Administration will update voluntary sodium or salt reduction targets for a range of processed, packaged and prepared foods to help reduce the amount of sodium in the food supply. The FDA will also start research and development of standardized front-of-package labeling that could include symbols “to help consumers, particularly those with lower nutrition literacy, quickly and easily identify foods that are part of a healthy eating pattern.”

The document doesn’t say whether such labeling would be voluntary or mandatory. The food industry is urging the administration to leave such labeling voluntary.

By and large, the food industry isn’t expected to face new mandatory regulations, but federal agencies would take steps to update and tighten voluntary guidelines. But the national strategy document released Tuesday also scolds companies for “highly effective techniques to target sales of unhealthy foods to adolescents and children, particularly Black and Hispanic children.” 

The administration said it would address the marketing of unhealthy foods by having the Defense Department limit marketing in military dining facilities to those suppliers that meet certain nutrition standards and that the Federal Trade Commission is likely to use targeted law enforcement actions to prevent the deceptive advertising of foods and dietary supplements, including such advertising to young people.  

Under the wide-ranging plan, the administration would seek to reinstate a more generous child tax credit that expired in January and is credited with temporarily reducing child poverty.  

Democrats expanded the child tax credit along party lines in last year’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief law, initiating monthly payments of up to $300 per child and making it more widely available at higher income amounts. Households that owed little or no income taxes qualified, a move Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., opposed.

Administration officials said on a background call Monday that reviving the bigger child tax credit would give families more money for food.

The administration also wants a return to across-the-board free school meals that expired June 30 after being instituted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. As an interim step, the national strategy document says the administration will work with Congress to expand free meal access to 9 million children.

The officials said the number is an estimate of how many would get meals if the community eligibility program were expanded. The program now provides meals where at least 40 percent of the student population qualifies by income. Biden proposed in 2021 that the threshold be lowered to 25 percent for elementary schools. The administration estimated at the time that an additional 9.3 million children would be fed through the program by 2032.

The House Education and Labor Committee’s child nutrition reauthorization bill (HR 8450) would set the threshold at 25 percent for community eligibility for all schools or school districts. 

Donna Martin, school nutrition program director for rural Burke County, Ga., said Monday that she sees a path forward. Martin will be a participant on one of the White House conference panels and will urge permanent adoption of across-the-board free meals in all federal school meal programs.. 

“I feel like we have a huge opportunity with this conference. Out of the last conference 50 years ago, we got food stamps and WIC,” Martin said, referring to the 1969 conference the Nixon administration sponsored that led to the establishment of the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program and the national expansions of both the federal school lunch program and food stamps as food safety nets. 

“Out of this conference, I’m hoping we’re going to get something big and I don’t see why universal school meals could not be the big thing we get out of this conference,” she said. 

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