White House conference focuses on fighting hunger

For months, Catholic Charities of Southeast Texas has had to waitlist families hoping to join a pantry program, as the nonprofit and other charities struggle to meet the growing demand amid rising food prices and the end of federal pandemic relief assistance.

Families who attend the food bank, which is stocked like a grocery store with a wide range of nutritious foods, often already struggle to pay for housing, health care and other expenses. So when they are turned away from the pantry, they often seek out cheaper foods or other food banks with fewer healthy options.

“If someone is hungry and there is nothing to eat but a honey bun, a honey bun will hit the mark,” says Carol Fernandez, president of Catholic Charities of Southeast Texas. .

As food charities across the country struggle to cope with rising inflation and rising demand, the White House will host a conference on Wednesday. For several months, the Biden administration has held listening sessions with hunger and nutrition groups, businesses, and federal agencies to help find ways to end hunger by 2030. C It’s an ambitious goal that would transform the operations of nonprofits like Catholic Charities and the foundations that help feed one in six Americans seeking food from nonprofits each year.

Although few details were released on the conference’s specific political priorities and questions abounded about the political likelihood of big changes, nonprofits and foundations found reason to be optimistic. They hope that the conference will be the starting point for a radical change.

Food banks, which millions of Americans rely on when federal aid isn’t enough, are not a long-term solution to the nation’s hunger problem, nonprofit leaders say. Instead, new approaches are needed that consider how food is made available to those who need it and how other factors, such as high rents and low wages, affect hunger.

“The truth is, we’re throwing away more food in the United States than is needed to eradicate hunger,” says Vince Hall, government relations manager at Feeding America. “It’s not a question of a lack of resources – it’s a question of a lack of determination.”

The last time the White House hosted a conference on hunger and nutrition was over 50 years ago. The 1969 conference, convened by President Richard Nixon, promised to “end hunger in America forever” and led to several landmark policy changes, including school meals and the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children.

These federal programs typically provide low-income Americans with direct food assistance.

But foundations and nonprofits say that because hunger is linked to other social and environmental challenges, including low wages and poverty, climate change and racial and gender inequality, they have focused on solving these problems.

Yet the federal government has not taken this approach, hunger experts say.

“Food insecurity is at its core caused by insufficient income,” says Lisa Davis, Senior Vice President of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign. “And we know that when families have incomes that don’t cover all of their basic expenses, food is often the first thing they cut.”

The White House has released some general themes for the conference. These include improving food access and affordability, recognizing the role of nutrition in overall health, encouraging healthy choices and physical activity, and expanding research on foods and nutrition.

Prior to the conference, the White House hosted a series of six private listening sessions with a wide range of nonprofit organizations and representatives from federal agencies, businesses and universities. The administration has yet to announce who will attend the conference, fueling criticism from activists that the event will be little more than a glorified press conference.

Still, for Share Our Strength’s Davis, the conference is a first step to opening broader conversations between nonprofits, foundations, government and corporations about hunger and poverty.

“We can’t wait for the perfect political moment – we have to act,” says Davis, who remains optimistic despite the challenges of passing major legislation in today’s tense political climate.

“We have to start somewhere, and right now is the best time,” she says. “Indeed, the need is quite urgent.”

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, Congress expanded the Child Tax Credit for low-income families, increased food stamp payments, and made school meals free. These temporary measures ultimately halved the U.S. child poverty rate by 2021, and food insecurity for families with children fell to its lowest rate in two decades.

The success and impermanence of these measures – the extended child tax credits expired at the end of 2021 – are at the heart of the concerns of those who wonder what more permanent relief could look like for families living in poverty and hunger.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve seen the creative responses that organizations, states, and the federal government have made to meet this incredible challenge,” says Jane Stenson, vice president of food and nutrition and reduction strategies. of poverty at Catholic Charities. “A lot of this creativity is new, and we’re hoping that maybe it will translate into the final results of the conference.”

On Friday, Feeding America, the nation’s largest food bank network, released a report based on the responses of nearly 36,000 people facing hunger. More than three in four respondents said the government should restore the child tax credit to help reduce family poverty, and half of English-speaking respondents cited housing costs as a major driver of hunger and poverty. poverty.

“You can’t be food secure and healthy if you live in inadequate housing,” Stenson says. “Everything is interconnected.”

In addition to seeking a return of the expanded Child Tax Credit, organizations like Feeding America have advocated for a broader expansion of food stamps, school lunches and policies to address high housing costs for families who live in poverty.

“Food banks are extremely important to the ultimate solution,” says Feeding America’s Hall. “But we should operate as an emergency measure, as a source of temporary assistance for people who are getting back on their feet.”

Eileen Hyde, Senior Director of Community Resilience at Walmart, highlighted her company’s investments in food access and nutrition programs, and its efforts this month to make it easier to buy eligible items online. SNAP, as positive ways that businesses can work to end hunger.

The company plans to roll out a similar online experience for consumers paying for products with the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children.

“It’s an example of our ability to adapt and evolve our business strategies to intersect with key programs that serve our customers and improve their bottom line,” Hyde says of the new feature, which allows shoppers to sort items eligible for SNAP. “It also enhances their experience with us from a business perspective.”

Despite the momentum surrounding this year’s conference, it will be hard to match the success of its 1969 predecessor, says Andy Fisher, hunger campaigner and author of the book Big Hunger.

“They’re hoping to recreate that watershed moment – but I think the question is whether the political moment is really ripe for that,” Fisher said.

This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Sara Herschander is a reporter for the Chronicle. Email: [email protected] The AP and the Chronicle are supported by the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofit organizations. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.