The White House conference is done. What now?

Food got its moment in the sun this week at the White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health, but what happens next is what matters. How President Biden’s gaffe overtook the press cycle. Congress passes a bill to drop tariffs on imported powder for formula.


Photo of Ambassador Susan E. Rice leads a panel discussion with Chairman Jim McGovern, Senator Cory Booker, and Senator Mike Braun at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in Washington, D.C. on September 28, 2022. The background is green, blue, and red with the conference name on white on a blue background. Representative McGovern is speaking in the photo.

USDA photo by Tom Witham.

Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix! It’s been a crazy week here in Washington with the White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health and all the events surrounding it. I was floored by how many folks at the conference told me they read and love this newsletter – which is only two months old! – including the indefatigable chef and humanitarian José Andrés. (But truly, how does he find the time?) Thank you for your support and encouragement.

If you didn’t get this newsletter on Tuesday, it means you’re not a paid subscriber yet. You missed a lot, including a detailed rundown of the new national strategy on hunger and nutrition, why FDA is focusing on the safety of onions and imported mushrooms, and why I found it so interesting that alcohol giant Diageo broke up with DISCUS, the big alcohol lobby (hat tip to Politico Influence). Subscribe to Food Fix here.

As always, feedback is encouraged. Reply to this email or shoot me a note: helena@foodfix.co.

Alright, let’s get to it –

Helena 

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Today, in Food Fix:

– The White House conference is done. What now?

– How President Biden’s gaffe overtook the press cycle

– Congress passes bill to drop tariffs on imported powder for formula

– The Reagan-Udall Foundation review team gets an earful about FDA’s problems

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Food gets its moment in Washington

As the White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health wound down on Wednesday afternoon, I talked with Marion Nestle, the godmother of food politics. We sat on a pair of green velvet couches in the center of a large atrium, surrounded by plants provided by the International Fresh Produce Association, and in eyeshot of swag from Instacart and the James Beard Foundation.

I wanted to know: What did she make of all this?

“They pulled it off,” Nestle said dryly. Despite being one of the most prominent voices in the food world, Nestle (no relation to the food company) hadn’t been invited until 9 p.m. on Sunday – a sign of just how chaotic the event planning had been. (Nearly everyone I talked to complained about the planning – as one person involved put it: the lack of communication was something only the White House could have gotten away with – but folks were clearly happy to be there when the day arrived.) As we talked, Nestle got right down to brass tacks: “The big question is: What, if anything, will result from it?” 

Several speakers throughout the day acknowledged that the conference was just the first step in a long, difficult road to implement the policies laid out in the administration’s national strategy, whether it be securing universal free school meals or meaningfully integrating nutrition into Medicaid and Medicare.

“What happens today is important, but what happens tomorrow is even more important,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a driving force behind the event, shortly after he received a standing ovation from a packed auditorium. 

“Food ought to unite us. Ending hunger ought to unite us,” McGovern said, to roaring applause. “I look forward to working with all of you in the weeks and the months and the years to come, and my colleagues … in a bipartisan way to actually make history – to transform this country, from a country where right now close to 35 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, to a country where hunger is illegal, or it doesn’t exist.”

Bipartisan blues: I heard several speakers emphasize the importance of bipartisanship. In his remarks to the same packed auditorium, President Joe Biden said he firmly believes, “the work ahead should be bipartisan. There shouldn’t be anything partisan about any of this.”

“No matter what else divides us, if a parent cannot feed a child, there’s nothing else that matters for that parent,” Biden continued, again, to roaring applause. “If you look at your child and you can’t feed your child, what the hell else matters?” 

This rhetoric unites everyone – I’ve never met a lawmaker who wants children to go hungry – but there are deep disagreements about what the government should do about it. The conference wasn’t bipartisan. Far from it. Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) held it down as the sole Republican in any of the plenary sessions. (Braun, by the way, is expected to run for governor of Indiana.) As I’d previously reported, Braun’s office wasn’t exactly eager to talk about whether he’d participate even though he was one of the co-sponsors on legislation calling for the conference. (My queries about this went unanswered.) I noticed his office didn’t Tweet anything about the event, in stark contrast to other participants.

House Agriculture ranking member G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.), who’s expected to take the gavel if Republicans win the House, this week said the conference had “seemingly deteriorated into a handpicked political gathering whose sole purpose is to perpetuate partisan ideologies.” The ranking member had been invited to the gathering roughly 24 hours before the event. He did not attend. Senate Agriculture ranking member John Boozman (R-Ark.) didn’t attend either. He was invited about a week before the event, but his office cited scheduling conflicts. 

During a gaggle at the conference, reporters asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about the criticism from Rep. Thompson – and also House Education and Labor ranking member Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) whose office called the event “doomed before it began” – and the secretary clearly was not in the mood: “There are 433 other members in the House … they are entitled to their views. I obviously disagree.”

On Thursday the White House released a roundup of praise for the event that included just two GOP politicians, Sen. Braun, and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a heart and lung surgeon who is now a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center where he has been outspoken about nutrition and diet-related diseases

Fired up: While the event was not bipartisan, it did show how fired up the grassroots are about these issues – much more so than I’d previously understood. It felt like a jubilant family reunion and also a rally with several hundreds attendees. There is clearly a broad-based and diverse army to be marshaled here. 

What remains to be seen is whether these folks will engage when the rubber meets the road, like the upcoming farm bill cycle. There is sure to be plenty of debate about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the price tag for which has ballooned during the pandemic. There are plenty of other big policies on the wishlist, like permanently extending the bolstered Child Tax Credit, that will be extremely difficult to push through even with narrow Democratic control of the White House, House and Senate.

As one savvy participant put it to me: “After the standing ovations, speeches and parties how the hell do we do this?”

This is not the end; this is the beginning,” said Ambassador Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council as she closed the day-long event. (It was not lost on people that she attended the whole conference.) “We have so much more work to do to achieve these goals – and we will.”

The short-term landscape: Clare Brock, an assistant professor in political science at Texas Woman’s University aptly summed up in the Washington Post this week the immediate-term political landscape for all these big plans: “If Democrats retain the House and solidify their hold on the Senate, we could see significant movement on nutrition-related recommendations … However, if Republicans win the House or the Senate, we may see Biden’s agenda come to a screeching halt.”

The long view: Those who reminisce about the success of the last White House conference in 1969, hosted by President Richard Nixon, often forget just how long some of those big policy wins took. 

Take the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (known as WIC). The program was piloted in 1972. It wasn’t solidified as a permanent program until 1974 – roughly five years after the conference and the same year Nixon resigned. WIC expanded over time, but it took quite a while to get to the point where roughly half of all infants born in the U.S. were served by the program. (Hat tip to the National WIC Association for this handy timeline.)

Processed foods are fair game: Production agriculture wasn’t part of the discussion on Wednesday – something that didn’t go over well with American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall, who was in attendance. But Steve Davies from Agri-Pulse asked Vilsack an interesting question about whether corn and soy growers should be worried about this growing focus on processed foods (if people change what they eat doesn’t that tank demand?). 

Vilsack’s response caught my attention: “We’ve asked questions about processed food in the Dietary Guidelines and I think it’s a legitimate question to ask,” he said, while also assuring there was no worry for farmers – plenty of demand to be had overall. (See my Tweet for the full quotes).

Moms in the room: One of the best parts of the conference was the dozens of attendees who participate in federal nutrition programs – members of the community who are most affected by decisions made in Washington, yet often not present in the room.

“I’m very grateful to be part of this whole conversation,” said Jessica Burris, of Troy, N.C., noting that she was excited to learn about how the ‘69 conference led to the creation of WIC. 

Burris attended the conference alongside fellow mom Cashawna Shakir (joined by her daughter, Ayah, who scored a pic with Ambassador Rice). Both moms serve on the National WIC Association’s WIC Participant Advisory Council, which solicits input from parents about what’s working and what’s not.

Listening to participants: Advocacy groups are increasingly formalizing how they get feedback from individuals who directly engage with nutrition programs. I also got to visit with Barbie Izquierdo, director of advocacy for neighbors engagement at Feeding America, a position she’s held since August. Izquierdo – who recently won a prestigious Global Citizen Prize for her work to bring more people with lived experience into advocacy – told me the conference planners initially said Feeding America could bring five people from the community to the conference. 

“We were really bold and sent them a list of 29,” Izquierdo said. “They responded: ‘Bring them all.’” Feeding America ended up facilitating about 40 community members to attend the event. “Everyone was really excited,” she said. “They really wanted the opportunity to share their input in a place that matters.”

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How President Biden’s gaffe overtook the press cycle

Of course, we can’t discuss Wednesday’s conference without acknowledging the gaffe that overtook the event, at least in the press. As President Biden was acknowledging the four lawmakers who had backed the conference, two Democrats and two Republicans, he appeared to forget that Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana had tragically died in a car crash in August. 

“Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?” Biden said, as he looked down to where the other lawmakers were seated. “I didn’t think she was – she wasn’t going to be here.”

Many reporters watching a livestream from the press room gasped. My phone immediately started blowing up. Sources told me they felt sick. It was bad. And the White House certainly made it worse by not just admitting the president misspoke. Still, it was unfortunate that this got so much press attention. To be clear, I think reporting on questions about any president’s mental fitness is totally fair game, but how much can you really learn from one gaffe? Much of the coverage felt like clickbait. The New York Post even called the late congresswoman’s brother who shrugged off the mis-step.

News barometer: To give you a sense of how much this slip up broke through, my sister is currently in the hospital after having a baby (I have an adorable new niece!) – and even she had heard about it. (My sister, that is. My perfect niece remains blissfully unaware of the daily news cycle.)

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Congress passes bill to drop tariffs on imported powder for formula 

It’s truly rare for a bill to pass as quickly as this one did: Legislation to temporarily suspend import tariffs on “base powder” used to make infant formula was introduced Monday and then on Thursday unanimously passed through both the House and the Senate.

Per Kristina Peterson at the Wall Street Journal: “The legislation would lift tariffs through the end of the year and now goes to President Biden for his signature. The White House didn’t immediately say whether he would sign the bill.”

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The Reagan-Udall Foundation review team gets an earful about FDA’s problems

On Thursday the Reagan-Udall Foundation kicked off a two-day public meeting to solicit input on the big review of FDA’s foods program, and boy, did they get feedback.

I could only tune in to part of the meeting, but I was struck by how candid the expert testimony was. There appeared to be broad consensus that culture, leadership and even structure at the agency need to change. So much of what was said confirms my in-depth reporting on FDA in April. 

The meeting continues today; you can register here to listen to the discussion. More to come on all of this.

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What I’m reading

What is ‘healthy’? FDA proposes new definition as added sugar, not fat, becomes nutritional bogeyman (Food Navigator). This week was so busy I didn’t have time to dive into FDA’s long-awaited update to “healthy,” which the agency released on Wednesday. Thankfully, we have this rundown from Elaine Watson. One new thing: FDA is proposing a limit on added sugars for products using the claim.

‘Starting to Panic’: School Lunch Costs Return for US Families Just as Inflation Hits (Bloomberg). Deena Shanker and Kelsey Butler dive into the reality that’s setting in at thousands of schools across the country: Universal free meals have ended. Food inflation makes the loss more acute for many families, they note. 

What are ultra-processed foods and why are they so bad for you? (Washington Post). This explainer from Anahad O’Connor, who joined WaPo from the New York Times, walks through the growing body of evidence around the negative health impacts of processed foods. We’re going to hear a whole lot more on this topic.

Newsom relents, signs farmworker union bill after pressure from Biden and labor (Cal Matters). California Gov. Gavin Newsom this week signed legislation aimed at making it easier for farmworkers to unionize after initially wavering on the issue, Jeanne Kuang reports.

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Who’s who

Patrick Delaney is leaving his role as director of external affairs of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Elizabeth Rivera is the point of contact for the committee in the interim.

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