The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health is an opportunity for transformational change (Nature Food)

NATURE FOOD | More than 50 years ago, President Richard Nixon convened the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health, bringing together all the agencies of the US government, Congress and other stakeholders to address widespread hunger in the United States. That conference — chaired and organized by Dr Jean Mayer, the founder of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy — was historic in its vision, bipartisanship and impact. The insights and recommendations of the 1969 conference established nearly all of the major US food and nutrition programmes that are in place today. This included major expansion and harmonization of the National School Lunch Program; major expansion and harmonization of the Food Stamp programme (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)); creation of the School Breakfast Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); and development of a new focus on food-based dietary guidelines and new consumer protections such as nutrition facts labelling2. Together, these policies achieved success in their major goal: to reduce caloric hunger nationally.

However, much has changed since 1969, and the United States and global community face stark new food and nutrition challenges. Chief among these are the intertwined pandemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well as globally rising cardiovascular diseases, cancers and other diet-related diseases. In the United States, half of all adults have diabetes or prediabetes, while 3 in 4 are overweight or have obesity. In addition, undernutrition has still not been eradicated globally — a dire double burden of malnutrition. In 2020, about 3.9% of US households experienced very low food security, and an additional 6.6% experienced low food security.

In our nation and around the world, nutrition insecurity and diet-related chronic diseases also disproportionately afflict racial and ethnic minorities and lower income, rural and other underserved populations. At the same time, the industrialization of food, from the Green Revolution to food science, successfully mitigated the leading nutritional concerns of the twentieth century: mass starvation due to a soaring world population, endemic vitamin deficiency diseases, and common foodborne pathogens; however, it is not well designed for the needs of the twenty-first century: a fully healthy, just and sustainable food system. Together, these burdens on human health and natural resources are also producing tremendous economic losses in the United States and worldwide. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia–Ukraine war have further underscored fundamental weaknesses across our food systems, including fragile supply chains, persistent food and nutrition insecurity, and increasing inequities. COVID-19 also intersects directly with obesity, diabetes and hypertension, which are the top risk factors, beyond age, for poor outcomes from infection.

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