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At conference short on GOP voices, Biden says US can end hunger

Key House Republicans called the conference a partisan event

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who has long pushed for a conference on hunger, wears an “End Hunger Now!” mask during the first session of the 117th Congress on Jan. 3, 2021.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who has long pushed for a conference on hunger, wears an “End Hunger Now!” mask during the first session of the 117th Congress on Jan. 3, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Joe Biden told several hundred people Wednesday that he envisions a U.S. with fewer deaths from diet-related diseases and parents better able to put food on the table.

“In America no child should go to bed hungry. No parent should die of disease that can be prevented,” said Biden, who opened the daylong White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

Biden said work toward the conference goals of ending hunger by 2030 and reducing the prevalence of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and other diet-linked illnesses started with the release Tuesday of a national strategy and the unveiling Wednesday of wide-ranging commitments to advance change from the private and nonprofit sectors that the administration valued at $8 billion.

“These goals are within our reach,” Biden said. “I believe America is at an inflection point.”

Administration officials said ways to measure progress on the commitments will be developed probably with the CDC Foundation, which Congress created to manage philanthropic and private-sector funding to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The last White House-sponsored conference on food was the Nixon administration’s three-day forum in 1969. That event led to the establishment of the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program and the national expansion of both the federal school lunch program and food stamps as a safety net.

Biden called for a bipartisan effort in ending hunger and reducing diet-related conditions, saying the issues are so big they should bridge political differences.

But Sen. Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican, was the only GOP member of Congress on the agenda. Braun and fellow Hoosier, the late Rep. Jackie Walorski, were the key Republican supporters of legislation to authorize and fund the conference.

Biden acknowledged Walorski’s role, but seemed not to recall that she died in a car accident in August.

As he thanked Braun, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., for their support for the conference, Biden paused, :”Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?”

Views from the Hill

McGovern, who has long pushed for the conference, said the U.S. can be transformed from a country “where close to 35 million Americans don’t know where their next meal will come from to a country where hunger is illegal, where it doesn’t exist any more.”

House Agriculture ranking member Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., and Education and Labor ranking member Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., issued statements calling the conference a partisan event. The Agriculture Committee has authority over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, while the Education and Labor Committee has authority over child nutrition programs such as the federal school lunch and breakfast programs.

Thompson and Foxx could become chairs of their respective committees if Republicans win the House in the midterm elections. Thompson, who received a conference invitation on Monday, said the conference had “deteriorated into a handpicked political gathering whose sole purpose is to perpetuate partisan ideologies.”

Asked about Thompson and Foxx, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said they are just two voices in Congress.

“There are 433 other members of the House. They are individual members. They are entitled to their views,” Vilsack said, noting that in the Senate that Agriculture ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., had backed legislation in June to provide waivers to school districts that allowed flexibility in summer feeding programs and funded school districts to cover higher food costs in the federal lunch program.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., told conference goers that she thinks the administration’s national strategy and its five pillars are important, especially the economic proposals such as reinstating the expanded child tax credit to put more money in the hands of families. She said the White House “should put it into the 2024 budget so that we can deal with it and move on it in the Congress.”

The Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments were the lead agencies for the conference although the national strategy includes tasks for a range of federal agencies.

Vilsack said the national strategy gives his department opportunities to expand financial incentives that make fruits and vegetables more affordable for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, expand a bonus program for the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program and increase the number of children eligible for free school meals.

He said was impressed by private-sector commitments such as one from Danone North America to prioritize new reduced-sugar, low-sugar, and no-added-sugar products with a pledge that 95 percent of those products will have 10 grams of total sugar per 100 grams by 2030.

Braun joined Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice, Booker and McGovern on stage to discuss what they said is a pivotal moment to improve the nation’s health and nutrition. McGovern and Booker were the lead Democrats on the legislation authorizing the conference. Rice oversaw the organization of the conference for the White House.

Braun, a businessman, said investments in wellness and nutritional health care paid off for his company, an auto parts distribution business, and its employees. Workers are healthier and the company has not seen health insurance premiums rise in 15 years. He said there should be nothing partisan about hunger, nutrition and health.

Braun called the conference a starting point on the three points, but that change will come from the actions of the public and private sectors.

“This is probably the biggest forum where we get to talk about it,” Braun said.

McGovern drew a standing ovation and cheers from the audience. He said he could barely believe the conference had become reality.

“What happens today is important but what happens tomorrow is even more important and the follow-up. We’ll have to keep our commitment and word here. Food ought to unite us,” he said.

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