The Biden government has launched a new strategy to end hunger in the US by 2030 through the expansion of benefits such as free school meals and food stamps.
One in 10 households struggled to feed their families in 2021 due to poverty – an extraordinary level of food insecurity in the richest country in the world which has barely budged in the past two decades amid deepening economic inequalities and welfare cuts. Of those, children in 274,000 households went hungry, skipped meals or did not eat for entire days because there was not enough money to buy food.
The plan, published on Tuesday, wants to cut the number of households experiencing hunger from four to less than one percent by 2030, and half the number experiencing food insecurity.
The food strategy also aims to cut diet-related diseases by increasing access to healthy food and exercise as new data shows that more than 35% of people in 19 states and two territories are obese – more the double the number of states in 2018 – while one in 10 Americans have diabetes. Reliance on food banks has increased over the same period.
It includes proposals to reform food packaging and voluntary salt and sugar reduction targets for the food industry, as well as working to expand Medicaid and Medicare access to obesity counselling and nutrition. Healthy food and meal prescriptions could be piloted for Medicare recipients with diabetes and other preventable diet related conditions. It calls for research – but no direct action – on the impact of the climate crisis (droughts, extreme heat, floods) on food security and nutrition.
According to Andy Fisher, researcher and author of Big Hunger, the document contains lots of great ideas but “the strategies are too small for such enormous problems”.
The national strategy comes a day before the White House hosts the first conference on hunger, nutrition and health in 53 years. Since then food security has improved but remains stubbornly high, while the consumption of processed unhealthy foods and diet-related diseases have increased.
It includes multiple ambitious proposals to increase safety nets but few concrete measures, as the plans depend on securing support from a polarised Congress which has so far refused to extend the child tax credit and universal free school meals – both of which led to historic improvements in food security in the wake of the pandemic.
The strategy states that the administration is committed to “pushing for Congress to permanently extend the expanded, fully refunded child tax credit and expanded Earned Income Tax Credit … to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour; close the Medicaid coverage gap; invest in affordable, high-quality child care; and expand the Housing Choice Voucher”.
Food inequalities are caused by structural and systemic racial and economic inequalities. Unequal access to affordable healthy food is disproportionality harder for people of color, Indigenous communities, rural dwellers and low income households due to structural disparities in access to healthcare, decent housing, transportation, educational and economic opportunities – all of which increase the risk of hunger and diet-related diseases.
The plan states that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will support communities to convert vacant spaces into grocery stores, urban gardens and food hubs. About 40 million people live far from the nearest grocery store, with rural and Indigenous communities most likely to live in the worst food deserts.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will conduct research and propose developing an easy-to-understand food packaging label to help consumers make healthier choices – something which the food industry has spent huge amounts of money to delay and derail in countries across the world.
“Industry is more or less spared although they will hate the front of package labelling. There’s no discussion of the role of misogyny or racism in this document, [yet] these are central to the existence of health disparities and hunger,” said Fisher.
According to Raj Patel, public policy researcher at the LJB school in Austin and author of Stuffed and Starved, the strategy seeks to expand social safety nets to prevent hunger but fails to address why people are falling into poverty in the first place.
“There’s not a mention of the fact that seven of the 10 worst paying jobs in the US are in the food system, nor that the food system has largely obfuscated public health attempts to curb its sale of obesogenic [obesity causing] foods. By ignoring the way that bad food depends on low wage work, supported by government safety nets, all this strategy does is make it easier for an industry hooked on low wages and unhealthy food to remain vastly profitable.”
Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, said the plan would start “an important set of conversations” and praised the White House’s call to end hunger by 2030, as well as the focus on broad-based economic security and healthy eating incentives.
“I wish they would have addressed benefit adequacy, and Snap as an automatic stabilizer, work requirements, and participation among immigrants,” added Whitmore Schanzenbach.
Two-thirds of undocumented migrant children do not get enough nutritious food, and their parents are mostly excluded from food stamps and other benefits.
In essence, the strategy is more a collection of big goals and a call to action rather than a set of policy pledges. Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said: “We need everyone – local, state and tribal governments, Congress, private companies, non-profit organizations and everyday citizens – to work together to achieve them.”
The last food conference hosted by Richard Nixon in 1969 was a pivotal moment in American food policy that led to the expansion of food stamps and gave rise to the Women, Infants and Children program that today provides parenting advice, breastfeeding support and food assistance to the mothers of half the babies born each year.