The hottest ticket in town

A look at who’s been invited to the White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health. A map of USDA’s big new climate-smart projects. House Democrats re-up push for universal free meals. And, not to be outdone, a Census survey.


A photo collage of President Joe Biden on the phone against the backdrop of the White House, including a photo of a pear.

Hello! Welcome to your Friday Food Fix. If you didn’t get this newsletter on Tuesday, you’re not a paid subscriber yet. You missed an analysis on a new coalition trying to shake up the farm bill, the latest on the race for White House conference commitments and fresh tidbits on USDA’s role in the planning. Subscribe now to Food Fix to avoid missing out.

This week, I did a Twitter Spaces chat with Dan Diamond of The Washington Post, a fantastic health reporter and fellow former Politico, and we got to talk about Food Fix. Spaces is a live thing so it wasn’t recorded, but I shared a bit more about the state of play: A few thousand people have already signed up for the Friday edition of Food Fix, a list that has roughly doubled in the past six weeks. Our email open rates remain very, very high. I’m so encouraged by your interest!

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Alright, let’s get to it –

Helena

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Today, in Food Fix: 

– Who’s invited to the White House conference

– USDA’s climate projects

– House lawmakers push for universal free school meals

– Census survey to measure infant formula shortage 

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The White House conference takes shape

We are just under two weeks away from the big White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health, and we’re starting to get an idea of what the event will look like. 

The administration has posted an agenda for the day, which is basically a vague run-of-show without names of speakers or any other details. We now know the event will be held a few blocks from the White House at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. Beyond that, many very eager stakeholders are mostly subsisting on crumbs of information.

Crumbs: I’m told several hundred people are expected to attend. A diverse lineup of chefs is expected to cook for the shindig. NPR’s Ximena Bustillo confirmed with the venue that a big space has been reserved, but so much remains murky about the scale and structure of the gathering. The White House did not respond to my questions about the conference. (I know you’re reading though, so get in touch!)

Hottest ticket in town: As word spread this week that conference invites had started to trickle out, much of the food world was in a tizzy. I quickly got messages asking if I knew who had been invited and was so-and-so on the list? It seems that invites are being sent on a rolling basis, so don’t be too dismayed if you haven’t received one yet. It does appear that mostly principals are getting invited (a.k.a. a group’s president or CEO), but other invites might be coming. Maybe.

The invite list: This is not a complete list, but here are some names I’ve heard: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; House Rules Chair Jim McGovern (D-Mass.); Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.); co-chairs of the outside taskforce to inform the conference, including Dan Glickman and Dariush Mozaffarian; Cathy Burns of the International Fresh Produce Association; Ann Cooper of the Chef Ann Foundation; Deb Eschmeyer, Obama alum and founder of Original Strategies; Sam Kass, Obama alum and partner at Acre Venture Partners; Claire Babineaux-Fontenot of Feeding America; Luis Guardia of Food Research & Action Center; Rev. Eugene Cho of Bread for the World; doctor and best-selling diet book author Mark Hyman; Robert Harvey of FoodCorps; Oran Hesterman of Fair Food Network; and a few people from the James Beard Foundation.  

Other folks I have to assume were invited: Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) one of the key Republicans on Capitol Hill who initially backed holding a conference – though his office didn’t respond to my questions about it. Chef José Andrés, Bill Frist and Ambassador Ertharin Cousin, are also on my “must be” list, because they were co-chairs on a big outside taskforce to inform the conference, but TBD. Have you been invited? Let me know: helena@foodfix.co

A plant-based push: Ahead of the conference, there has been a ton of organizing around more access to plant-based foods, including at federal cafeterias and across government purchasing programs. You can find some of these letters and comments in the unofficial Food Fix conference docket we’ve put together. 

Celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern is leading a conference commitment encouraging chefs to include a plant-based or vegetarian entrée option on their menus. Zimmern has advocated for the White House to get more plant-based meals into federal facilities of all kinds. See one of the letters from chefs here.

What about ag? An interesting lineup of leaders, including Todd Barker of the Meridian Institute; Ferd Hoefner of Farm, Food, Environment Policy Consulting; and Mike Lavender, of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, published a memo this week urging the White House not to overlook agriculture during the conference (that’s not part of the scope for the confab). One of their top recommendations is to align farm policy with nutrition policy; they also advocate for increased focus on racial equity. You can read their memo here

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A look at USDA’s new climate projects

USDA this week unveiled nearly $3 billion in funding for 70 new climate-smart commodities projects. This is really the crown jewel of Biden’s agricultural climate change policy – which has always been aimed at incentivizing farmers to change their practices and cut their emissions, rather than going anywhere near regulation.

Climate-smart what? The theory behind so-called climate-smart commodities – a new concept – is that products grown or raised with climate-friendly practices could one day yield a premium in the market (which might mean higher prices for farmers). These projects are about testing what works and what doesn’t.

High demand: The USDA said it was so overwhelmed with interest in the projects – receiving more than 1,000 applications seeking some $20 billion – that the department ended up tripling the original plan of investing $1 billion.

We made a map of where the money is going. It’s essentially a heat map, so the totals don’t add up (many of these projects span several states, so those dollars are counted multiple times): 

Heat map of where the first pool of USDA-funded climate-smart projects are located

As a refresher, project funds come from the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), a depression-era funding mechanism – or as others might call it, “a slush fund” – that’s been used to respond to various commodity problems. Farm leaders and Republicans have been very uneasy or even straight up opposed to using CCC funds for climate policy, but that opposition appears to have softened somewhat. 

A GOP split: Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, held his fire this week when asked about it by Agri-Pulse: “I think we’ll have the opportunity as time goes by to review the projects, to see how they’re working,” Boozman said. The report added that Boozman said there could be some “good ideas” that come out of the projects that lawmakers can consider as they write the next farm bill.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson (R-Pa.), ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, has not backed down from his criticism. This week he blasted the administration for “unilaterally spending billions of dollars without congressional input,” and essentially threatened that Congress could step in and block USDA from using funds like this in the future.

CCC for food: While we’re on the subject, USDA on Wednesday announced it tapped into the same CCC fund to direct nearly $2 billion to help food banks and school programs. Both are bracing for impact with the end of universal free school meals and other pandemic aid while food inflation is through the roof.

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House lawmakers re-up push for universal free school meals

A bipartisan group of 48 members of Congress on Thursday called on congressional leadership to include an extension of universal free breakfasts and lunches in the next continuing resolution, otherwise known as the bill that keeps the government funded and open for business. (As we wrote last week, universal free school meals halted this month.)

The letter, led by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.), and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), noted that a slew of waivers that allowed schools maximum flexibility during the pandemic, including the ability to offer free meals to all students, came to an end this school year. 

“[T]hese waivers have now reverted back to pre-pandemic policies, increasing red tape, administrative costs, and stigmas for children, families, and school districts,” they wrote. 

Backers of this Hail Mary push include the National Education Association, the School Nutrition Association, Hunger Free America, Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, Food Research & Action Center, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The upshot: This is a longshot. If the Senate isn’t on board (and they aren’t), this sort of thing could gum up keeping the government funded. We’ll keep an eye on it.

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Census survey to measure infant formula shortage 

The Census Household Pulse Survey, which has measured how households are faring throughout the pandemic, now includes questions about infant formula. (Hat tip to the concerned mom who filled out the survey this week and flagged it to me!)

The survey appears to be trying to gauge how the shortage impacted households. One of the questions, for example, asks survey takers to select how they responded, with options like increased breastfeeding, changed type of formula, changed where purchased formula, watered down formula (extremely dangerous, by the way), or moved away from formula altogether, among others. 

It also asks consumers: In the last seven days, did you have difficulty obtaining formula  – yes or no? Other questions dig into how much formula households have on hand and what brands they typically use.

What to watch: I will be really interested to see the results here. As we’ve noted in the past, there’s some disagreement about the severity of the ongoing shortage. It’s been more than six months since the massive Abbott Nutrition recall in February. Retail data is still pretty inconsistent – it shows that stocks are off, though they have improved somewhat. Overall sales volume is said to have increased significantly, which means more formula is making it into homes than before this crisis hit. Still, parents and caregivers face bare or otherwise disrupted shelves in stores across the country. Specialty formulas remain hard to find, and the stress is still there. More on the Census survey here.

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What I’m reading

Billionaire no more: Patagonia founder gives away the company (New York Times). Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has given up control of his outdoor clothing company and redirected the profits to combating climate change. Patagonia is also active in the food space, both in terms of advocacy (think regenerative ag) and producing some food products. 

GMO ingredient disclosure online is not enough, court rules (Food Dive). Using QR codes or sharing information via text message alone are not enough to satisfy the mandatory disclosure of bioengineered ingredients, a California federal court ruled this week. This brief by Megan Poinski dives into what it means. The ruling sends a portion of the regulation back to USDA for “reconsideration,” the report notes.

Food prices are still soaring – here’s what’s getting more expensive (CNN). Though inflation is slowing overall, food prices continue to climb and there seems to be little the Federal Reserve can do about it. This offers a good breakdown on where we are right now with these price increases. 

Liz Truss could scrap anti-obesity strategy in drive to cut red tape (The Guardian). Are we about to say goodbye to some of the anti-obesity policies backed by former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson? Under its new prime minister, the UK government may scrap its “entire anti-obesity strategy after ministers ordered an official review of measures designed to deter people from eating junk food,” per The Guardian. 

Why aren’t medical breakthroughs in obesity a bigger deal? (GRID). Editor-at-large Matthew Yglesias notes that diet and exercise are increasingly recognized as an ineffective intervention for obesity. Yglesias shares that he underwent endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty and wishes more people would talk about available medical treatments.

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Who’s who

Joe Shultz has been named inaugural executive director of Platform for Agriculture and Climate Transformation (PACT), a new initiative backed by the Walton Family Foundation and other funders. Shultz was most recently staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Cecilia Narrett is a development associate at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Most recently, she served as a humane educator at Farm Sanctuary. 

Inari Agriculture, Inc. has retained Laura Wood Peterson Consulting, Inc., per lobbying disclosures. (Hat tip Politico Influence for both of these.)

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