Biden’s hunger and nutrition goals confront November realities

Historically high food prices and a protracted baby formula food safety crisis — issues that have been easy targets for Republicans ahead of the election — have also dogged the administration in the lead-up to the conference.

“The president’s number one economic priority is tackling inflation and lowering prices for Americans. This month, we did see some welcome moderation in price increases for food at the grocery store. But we know that prices are still too high,” a Biden administration official said in a briefing with reporters.

Noreen Springstead, executive director of anti-hunger organization WhyHunger, is hopeful the conference will produce lasting results, but said unless there is a “massive paradigm shift,” it’s hard to see how the U.S. meets one of Biden’s longer-term goals — ending hunger by 2030 — especially as food inflation is hitting families so intensely right now.

“If you’re a single mom with three kids and you gotta put food on the table and pay the rent and for gas in the car, that’s just not doable,” Springstead said.

Biden will unveil a series of executive actions and policies to tackle hunger, nutrition and health disparities, including directives for the Food and Drug Administration to roll out voluntary nutrition guidance and for agencies to better coordinate to expand participation in federal nutrition programs.

But several key parts of the president’s plan rest on calling for Congress to pass legislation, including efforts to increase access to key nutrition programs and expand the number of children who can receive free school meals — the subject of an extended political fight in Congress. Details about the summit had been sparse in recent days, and many key congressional offices have yet to be read in on the specific plans. (A Biden official disputes that, saying that they held hundreds of bipartisan listening sessions for the conference with advocates and members of Congress.) Lastly, Biden will encourage private and philanthropic groups to help address a list of long-term goals, like ending hunger in the U.S. by 2030.

The Biden administration official said the president was committed to “pushing” Congress to move specific legislation to address food insecurity and health disparities, including extending the expanded child tax credit.

Lawmakers and advocates still have high expectations for the meeting, only the second since 1969. The inaugural conference led to sweeping policy changes that have lasted decades, such as a major expansion of government nutrition programs like food stamps. Matching that could be a challenge, given the short planning window and organization process that one person on an early White House stakeholder call described as “a clusterfuck.” White House officials strongly push back on that characterization.

Vulnerable Democrats on Capitol Hill are hopeful the president focuses on what the administration is doing to bring down food prices, as demand at many food banks across the country is higher than at any point during the pandemic.

“That’s my hope,” said one House Democratic lawmaker, who asked to speak anonymously in order to be candid. “But they haven’t told us anything.”

The agenda of the White House conference, which the administration released last Friday, includes topics about ensuring affordable food for all children and families.

The conference, which Obama administration officials resisted holding, almost didn’t happen during Biden’s tenure. White House officials were interested in the idea amid the months of back and forth with lawmakers, according to six people familiar with the plans, including three Biden officials.

Ultimately it was a call from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that got the event on the books, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said at an event with Pelosi in August. A White House official disputes that framing and says the White House wanted to hold the conference from the beginning. Congress also approved $2.5 million in funding for the meeting and pushed for the White House to produce a national strategy to address hunger, nutrition and health disparities in the years to come.

Pelosi, at the event with McGovern in San Francisco, acknowledged some of the private concerns from vulnerable Democrats who are worried that a conference on food insecurity a few weeks before the midterms is a GOP attack ad waiting to happen. And, she held firm.

“This is saying to the country, ‘This is our priority,’” Pelosi said. “It’s a big departure from saying, ‘What’s the most politically advantageous conference we can have?’”

A Democrat involved in the planning pushed back on the notion that it would be politically hazardous to elevate food access and affordability issues so close to the midterms amid high food prices.

“The conference is going to be talking about families struggling to afford food,” the person said. “And if that’s the concern of what’s going on in the country right now, then this conference is an incredible opportunity to highlight the work that Democrats are doing to address the issue.”

Biden officials have been balancing a wide array of private-sector and nonprofit groups jockeying for influence among thousands of stakeholders trying to help shape the conference. Any new regulations that come out of it that are likely to have major impacts on a raft of issues, from food labeling to dietary guidance to federal nutrition benefits. A series of corporations and philanthropic groups are also set to unveil a wide variety of initiatives and financial commitments around the conference, according to several of the groups.

With a power shift in Congress likely precluding any legislative action, stakeholders have been closely watching the administrative actions Biden is set to unveil.

“This administration has shown they are willing to do really significant administrative actions that can advance nutrition security and health in our country,” said Curt Ellis, CEO of FoodCorps, which will have a panelist speak during the conference and senior leaders in the room on Wednesday. “I do think the conference is going to catalyze some significant progress in administrative actions, and I think it’s going to really set the table for what the policy agenda is for our field for the rest of this decade,” Ellis added.

Several key congressional Democrats are planning to attend the event, including Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow. McGovern and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), two key forces behind the conference, are planning to speak, according to people familiar with the plans.

But the White House has raised some eyebrows by deciding not to invite more congressional Democrats, including some members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. Those lawmakers will help decide how Congress spends hundreds of billions of dollars on federal nutrition and anti-hunger programs next year during farm bill negotiations. Biden officials cited limited space at the meeting, which will be held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington.

White House officials and congressional Democrats argue the conference will help push for future legislation, but Democratic lawmakers and aides admit that no major bills are slated to move in Congress before November, including key Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation that’s already been introduced in the House.

Despite some internal tensions about the convening, several vulnerable congressional Democrats and their staffers say they aren’t paying much attention to the conference ahead of tough races.

“A White House conference on food insecurity is just not going to make a ton of headlines, so I don’t think people are really going to be up in arms about it,” said one Democratic Hill aide.

“Especially when DeSantis is shipping humans,” the person added, referring to Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis flying migrants to Democrat-controlled communities.

Sparse details and questions about the potential scope of Biden’s executive actions have also prompted the ire of congressional Republicans, who are already critical of the Biden administration for using pandemic authorities to broadly expand federal nutrition program access.

“To say that we have been left out in the cold, is an understatement,” said a Republican Hill aide.

A White House official says they held bipartisan listening session with Congress to help inform the strategy.

Serious breakdowns in federal food safety oversight amid the lingering baby formula crisis are also top of mind for some advocates ahead of the conference. A string of failures in the federal response leading up to the crisis, especially at the FDA, helped prompt two separate reviews of the agency’s troubled foods division. White House officials have undertaken a flurry of actions to address baby formula supplies, and argue the conference is meant to tackle long-term goals around hunger and diet-related diseases, not supply chain challenges. Specialty formula is expected to come up as part of the broader conversation on Wednesday, according to a White House official.

“They’re compartmentalizing the big conference and the dysfunction that’s going on with the FDA food program,” said Brian Ronholm, former deputy undersecretary of food safety at the Agriculture Department during the Obama administration.

Susan Mayne, a senior FDA official who oversees a major piece of the foods program and was involved in the infant formula response after months of delays, is expected to attend and speak during the conference, though she’s not among a list of headline speakers the White House announced last week.