Clinton FDA chief to spearhead foods review

Food world is torn between cautious optimism and wary skepticism about the FDA eval; the White House food conference faces equity pressure; and the administration mulls moving away from imported formula in WIC.

A photograph of former FDA commissioner Jane Henney speaking with her hands raised at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Photo courtesy of Aspen Ideas Festival.

Hello! Thanks for reading Food Fix. I learned a ton this week talking to state leaders administering federal aid like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program while I was at the APHSA meeting in Savannah, Ga. These folks have been under tremendous stress throughout the pandemic, having played a central role in many aspects of our emergency response. But now that we are pivoting to whatever this “new normal” is, there is major trepidation that Washington won’t learn the right lessons from this unprecedented crisis.

States want to keep many of the flexibilities that came with the pandemic. They worry about what will happen to millions of SNAP recipients when the public health emergency ends, taking with it a major increase in benefits – and how much blowback they are going to get in the process. Stay tuned for more on all this, and please do send me your thoughts if you’re in the trenches.

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Today, in Food Fix:

– Former FDA commissioner Jane Henney tapped to lead foods review

– Pushing for equity, representation at the White House conference

– Corrected: White House call discusses phasing out imports from WIC

– Food insecurity on the rise


Clinton-era FDA commissioner to lead foods review

The Reagan-Udall Foundation this week announced that Jane Henney, who served as FDA commissioner during the final years of the Clinton administration, will lead the external review of FDA’s foods program.

As Food Fix has previously reported, this review by a foundation closely aligned with the agency has sparked plenty of skepticism. Is it really going to be independent? Can former FDA leaders step back, take a hard look at their former agency and call out problems, or are they too close to the situation? There are plenty of questions. Beneath it all, there is still broad consensus that the FDA’s foods program has major challenges, as I’ve outlined in POLITICO and elsewhere.

Quick bio: Henney – the first woman appointed to lead FDA in 1999 – is a physician who has served in various roles across the private and public sectors and academia. She is a longtime professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati. According to a bio, Henney has served on the boards of several companies that are heavyweights in the medical space, including Cigna and Astrazeneca.

Early reax: Henney is widely respected by those who have worked with her, but leaders in food world were also a little bit like, “Henney who?” She’s not well-known in food policy circles. Interested parties are now watching closely to see who is named to the rest of the panel that will help conduct the evaluation. Now that the foundation has selected its leaders (for both foods and tobacco), they’ll begin assembling the evaluation teams for each. 

The foundation is currently fielding plenty of input regarding who should be on those teams. FDA Commissioner Robert Califf recently told me that he expects to have at least some say in terms of who is part of that effort. 

Not an ‘inquisition’: “I’ll definitely have some involvement in who is on the panel,” Califf said in an interview with Food Fix. “The purpose of it is to inform decisions that we need to make. This is not meant to be like an inquisition. It’s meant to be an evaluation.”

Califf said he expects there to be plenty of “collaboration” between FDA and the expert panel (as well as external experts). 

As a reminder, when the foundation starts the clock on its 60-day review, a private portal will open for everyone, including current FDA employees, to submit feedback confidentially. 

CDC seeks reform: While FDA goes through this external review process, it’s interesting to watch CDC Director Rochelle Walensky publicly pledge to undergo an “ambitious” overhaul after the agency’s missteps responding to Covid-19. More on that from STAT here.


Pushing for equity, representation at the White House conference

One of the most central challenges in tackling food insecurity and diet-related diseases, which are both goals of the forthcoming White House conference, is addressing deep and persistent racial disparities. It’s a theme that’s coming up again and again as I’m sifting through the comments you all have sent me (keep them coming, by the way). To dig deeper into these concerns, Food Fix recently caught up with Tambra Raye Stevenson, founder and CEO of Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture, known as WANDA, about her work to elevate equity and representation in the run-up to the food summit.

“I’m a history buff, so I’m very much aware of the history of the White House conference,” Stevenson said. “I am super mindful of that time around 1969 – of who has had a seat at the table and who has not. How has that shaped our policy over the past 50 years? And which communities were most impacted because they did not have a seat at the table of food democracy?”

WANDA has recently been hosting “kitchen table” conversations about how to change food policy across the country, from LA to Boston to DC to Oklahoma City and Dallas, she said. This input also helped inform the group’s report to the White House.

“It really is an opportunity to say ‘no more’ to being hidden figures in the food system, as Black women and women of color,” Stevenson said. “If we were actually leading this agenda, how would it be shaped differently?”

About: WANDA’s mission is focused on “reaching, teaching, and advocating for women and girls of African descent in the nutrition, dietetics, and agricultural space.” More on WANDA here.

Leadership check: It’s worth noting that we don’t yet know who in the administration is calling the shots with regards to the conference. But the effort outwardly appears to be lacking leadership from people of color.


White House call discusses phasing out imports from WIC

Note: This item has been updated and corrected with new information from USDA.

Amid the ongoing formula shortage, states have been utilizing waivers to allow for certain imported formulas to fill gaps in supply for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children – but that practice could be phased out, something that was discussed during a White House briefing Thursday.

“This is such a bummer,” wrote Mallory Whitmore, a mother of two in Tennessee who runs The Formula Mom – a highly influential Instagram account dedicated to formula feeding that’s been tracking the ongoing crisis closer than any media outlet. Whitmore joined the White House briefing. 

In an update to her 186,000 followers, Whitmore wrote: “Good news is that it seems like it’ll be a slow phasing out and participants should receive sufficient notice. Still hoping we see major WIC reforms come out of this crisis.” USDA recently wrote to states outlining details on these waivers

Update: A USDA official clarified after Food Fix ran Friday that there haven’t been any formal announcements or decisions about waivers ending or timing, nor an end to payment for imported formulas.

“We are very much continuing to look at this,” the official said. “We have not made any decisions.”


Food insecurity on the rise

We’re already seeing multiple signs that food insecurity is on the rise again, after a mass increase in government aid was credited with preventing a major spike during much of the pandemic. Much of that aid has been discontinued or is winding down.

A new Twitter thread from Julieta Cuéllar, a policy researcher and communications manager at Propel, Inc., breaks down some new data showing the rising need, not just for food, but also increasing rates of unstable housing and utilities being shut off.

Propel has a free mobile app called Providers (formerly Fresh EBT) that helps 5 million households manage their SNAP balance and other government benefits. The company has been surveying some 5,000 users every month since September 2020. You can find an overview of the July responses here. The charts are very helpful for understanding where we are right now.


What I’m reading

Why junk food stocks are surging (CNN Business). The stock market may be down overall, but the share prices for several companies selling high-calorie, low-nutrition foods are way up, according to this analysis. The piece credits collective stress and exhaustion for bolstering sales of less than healthy foods, from energy drinks to chips.

The Dietary Guidelines process: an analysis (Food Politics). Marion Nestle dives into a lengthy National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine effort to evaluate the Dietary Guidelines process that shapes the government’s formal recommendations for healthy eating. The most recent report from NASEM raises some concerns about risks to the “integrity” of the process, Nestle notes.

How Colorado River Cuts Will Impact National Food Supply (Newsweek). A look at how new orders for states that receive water allotments from the Colorado River to cut back on consumption could impact key crops like, say, lettuce from Arizona (which is the winter salad bowl for the U.S.). There are also major consequences for cattle, dairy production, etc. This is absolutely an area to keep your eye on.

Employers have stolen some $1.8 billion from H-2B visa program workers (Economic Policy Institute). Per this new report from EPI, “mass violations of wage and hour laws are being committed in the industries that employ H-2B workers” (which includes food and ag). The report cites Labor Department data showing that nearly $1.8 billion was stolen from workers in H-2B industries between 2000 and 2021.


Who’s who

Kraft Heinz Foods Company has hired Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP (hat tip: POLITICO Influence).

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