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Hunger plan builds on federal role in getting food to millions

Strategy looks to boost healthy food options through federal food aid and at federal buildings

President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in Washington on September 28.
President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in Washington on September 28. (Oliver Contreras/AFP via Getty Images)

The federal government’s influence on what millions of people eat extends from school lunches for children to the dining halls of the Air Force, Army, Marines and Space Force.

The Biden administration’s national strategy to end hunger by 2030 and to improve the U.S. diet aims to tap into federal agencies’ ability to set policies and menus. The administration touted $8 billion in commitments, largely from the food sector, but it steered clear of imposing new mandates on the private sector — at least for now.

The strategy, a mix of executive branch actions and legislative priorities issued a day before the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health on Wednesday, may have its most immediate effect in areas where the federal government is most closely involved in providing food. With several hundred participants, the conference echoed a similar, but more extensive event in 1969.

Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, said some aspects of the strategy are rightly aspirational, but she welcomed the multi-agency approach.

“Just clearly saying that there are several federal agencies and departments that have some kind of responsibility with regard to ensuring that struggling Americans can get better access to food resources is a big step forward,” said Leibman, who watched the conference remotely.

Actions by federal agencies would affect a broad range of people in the U.S. since chronic illnesses such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes cut across socioeconomic lines, she added.

“It is government that has the most control over government. You can see why they would start there and begin to model successful outcomes that will translate into action in other sectors,” Leibman said.

The plan says federal departments and agencies can complement and coordinate each other’s work on food and nutrition.

The strategy directs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to update food service guidelines for all federal facilities to emphasize the inclusion of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and low sodium products among the options available to military personnel, civilian federal workers and members of the public when they are on federal properties.

The updated guidelines would seek to increase the availability of healthy beverages as well as plant-based options.

“Millions of federal employees and other people who access government facilities — from National Parks to VA hospitals — will benefit,” the administration said in the strategy document.

The possibility of strengthening guideline language on plant-based offerings and meat alternatives at federal facilities cheered a coalition of Democratic lawmakers, chefs, animal welfare groups and environmentalists who had called for more plant and vegetarian products at federal sites.

The Environmental Working Group, a member of the coalition, said a survey it did of 521 federal dining facilities found less than half of them offered vegetarian alternatives.

The strategy was front and center at the conference as health experts, anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates, agriculture leaders and representatives of foundations, other nonprofits and the food industry discussed ways to turn the proposed changes into reality.

The Agriculture Department generally comes to mind when there is talk of federal policy and food because it works with farmers and administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, which provides monthly benefits to nearly 41 million people in 21.5 million households.

The department is also responsible for the national school lunch and breakfast programs that provided meals to about 30 million children annually before the COVID-19 pandemic widened the availability of the meals. And the department administers the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program for pregnant and postpartum women and children up to the age of 5. WIC, a program that itself was established in the wake of the 1969 hunger conference, benefited 6.2 million people in 2021, according to preliminary data.

The national strategy lays out legislative goals for the program but also directs the department to increase the number of retailers and states participating in the online grocery shopping pilot program for SNAP beneficiaries. The department is to proceed with regulations to make the pilot program permanent.

The strategy says the department also should expand an online grocery shopping pilot for participants in the WIC program.

The administration said online food buying for both programs reduces barriers such as lack of transportation and expands access to healthier foods.

The federal nutrition push would extend to independently run child care centers operating under license in office spaces managed by the General Services Administration. The agency, which touts itself as the leading federal agency overseeing child care centers for federal workers, will be responsible for stressing good nutrition and physical activity for children in the centers.

The strategy does not specify how GSA should accomplish this, but it suggests that state and local governments include minimum nutrition standards and requirements for physical activity as part of their licensing requirements for early care and education facilities.

Defense and Veterans Affairs

The Defense Department, which has 3.3 million servicemembers and civilian workers, and the Veterans Affairs Department, which employs 371,000 health care providers and support staff at 171 medical centers and 1,113 outpatient clinics, are to buy more food from local sources. The directive builds on the administration’s push for more consumption of produce and on the USDA’s efforts to expand retail markets for small to medium-sized farm operations.

The Veterans Affairs Department also will establish a new Office of Food Security in the Veterans Health Administration to provide strategic guidance and coordination to VA hospitals and clinics on best practices, research, and data to address food insecurity among veterans. The VA will expand the clinical nutrition services for veterans.

The strategy gives the Defense Department several assignments.

The department and its services are to tackle food insecurity within the ranks and implement the new basic needs allowance included in the fiscal 2022 defense authorization to identify military families below 130 percent —about $36,075 for a family of four — of the poverty threshold. The families will be notified that they could qualify for a monthly pay increase that would vary by income and location.

The National Defense Authorization Act legislation reflects an acknowledgment on Capitol Hill of hunger among lower-ranking U.S. military personnel and their families.

Leibman, whose organization has worked since 2012 on military hunger issues, said the directive reflects the Defense Department’s acceptance that there is a problem after years of denial. For years, she said, there was “the idea that this was the fault of the families that were struggling, which became an overblown stereotype that was standing in the way of solving the actual problem.”

The department is to clearly and consistently identify products in its military commissary and exchanges network of grocery and retail stores covered by the WIC program. In fiscal 2020, the stores served 5.4 million authorized households. The military also is to limit marketing of unhealthy foods in its dining facilities.

The department also is to provide military WIC and SNAP participants access to online food shopping.

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