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Earlier this week, Hurricane Ian hit Cuba before touching down in Florida on Wednesday. The storm has resulted in loss of lives, power outages, heavy flooding, and catastrophic infrastructural damage. It was one of the strongest hurricanes to ever strike the west coast of Florida, and while it is weakening, the storm still poses a serious threat to those in its path. My heart goes out to everyone affected by this storm and if you have the means, I encourage you to support organizations like World Central Kitchen that are mobilizing to get fresh meals to those impacted.
As the climate crisis advances, these extreme weather events are becoming more and more frequent and highlight the urgency of strengthening our food and agriculture systems. We need practices and policies that build resilience and ensure that everyone has access to healthy food, grown in a way that benefits both people and the planet. That’s why I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to attend the historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health on Wednesday. As I reflect on the day, I wanted to share some thoughts from my personal notebook.
It was a powerful day, with President Joe Biden speaking, as well as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, ambassador Susan Rice, food superhero and Congressmember Jim McGovern, Senator Braun, and many others. We need as many perspectives, as many voices, as possible to come together to tackle this very pressing issue. I was really impressed by the nonpartisan or bipartisan support for what the administration is calling for—which is a national strategy on hunger, nutrition, and health.
During his speech, President Biden really was the hypeman for this conference. “That’s why we’re here today, to harness our greatest resource: Our fellow Americans. Everyone has an important role to play,” he told the 600 or so people in the room. Whether we’re talking about food and farming, or solving hunger, or diet-related factors like obesity and heart disease, we all must be citizen eaters, as the Center for a Livable Future calls folks actively engaged in food systems.
As I think about not only the conference but also the people it’ll impact, I’m truly moved to tears. Rep. McGovern put it best when he said that hunger should be illegal. I truly believe that. Hunger should be illegal. Whether you live in the U.S. or in Subsaharan Africa, no one should be hungry. There’s no reason for it. This world is full of abundance, and we need to break down the barriers that keep people from getting the nourishment their bodies and souls need.
How do we do that? I really admire the perspective that Mike Curtin of D.C. Central Kitchen shared. He said, “Hunger is only a symptom of a much larger issue. We also know that food alone will never end hunger.” Hunger is a symptom—of poverty, of inherent racism. If we can all come together to end these disparities, we’ll have a better country—one that’s obviously better nourished, but also one that is more compassionate and empathetic.
We heard folks talking about ending food apartheid. Leveraging food policy. Reaching across all sorts of aisles, from political to geographic to cultural. I was particularly impressed to hear calls for universal school feeding programs. This just makes sense, all over the world. It made sense during Covid. It will make sense long after Covid.
We also heard calls for stronger organizing among food and farm workers, especially those in fields and processing plants around the country. It truly gives me chills just thinking about it. Food system workers need to collectively organize to make change for themselves and their families. When we’re talking about these massive food corporations, worker organizing and empowerment is the only way forward.
As I’ve talked about before, the last time the White House held this kind of conference was in 1969—during the Nixon Administration! It’s a shame that it’s taken 53 years for another conference, because amazing things came out of the original conference: Essential programs like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, the National School Lunch Program, and more were created or strengthened.
Yes, we’ve taken great strides in the U.S. since 1969. And as we know all too well, there’s still a lot of work to be done to fix what many, myself included, call a broken food system. It’s one that focuses on filling people up—with ultra-processed foods—rather than nourishing them.
I was so heartened by the folks at the conference: Sam Kass, such an influential voice for food systems and social entrepreneurship. Corby Kummer, an amazing writer and thinker on these issues. Regina Anderson, an inspiring advocate who leads Food Recovery Network. My friend Alexina Cather, and food policy and food security expert—every time I talk to her, I feel so inspired and engaged. Adrian Lipscombe, who was at the conference as a chef but who also has so much to add to these conversations in her role as a city planner, and just a great thinker and doer. The private sector was there in force, too, including both small and large companies, and there were so many other inspiring folks I wish I had talked with more.
Anyone who’s active in food and policy and agriculture knows about the buzz, the energy, at conferences like this. Everyone knows I’m a big nerd, too—I always feel really inspired after these conferences. I’m proud that Food Tank was part of not only this year’s conference itself but the listening sessions and convenings in the lead-up, too. But we discussed that, yes, it’s great to talk to one another at conferences like this, but now we have to do something. We have a to-do list. There are action points, and we need to follow through.
“[The conference] is an opportunity,” Rep. McGovern told us, “and we can’t blow it.”
He’s right. We can’t. That’s why we need everyone to call on your representatives to pass legislation that will reduce food insecurity and help us create nourishing, equitable food systems. Legislation like the bipartisan Food Donation Improvement Act, which has the potential to help food businesses reduce food waste by making it easier for them to donate it to communities in need. You can read more about it, sign a petition, and learn how to email your senator to support the Act by clicking here.
I also encourage you to check out the White House website and learn more about what happened yesterday and watch different segments of the conference there. We’re going to continue the discussion in this newsletter and on our podcast about these action items raised by the day’s speakers as we continue our work to end hunger in the U.S. and around the world.
As always, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to keep the conversation going. Food Tank is your voice on the ground at these events to push for a more sustainable and just global food system, so I cannot overstate how much I value hearing each of your perspectives.
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Photo courtesy of David Everett, Unsplash