Thought Leadership

The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition & Health: Food Policy Dud or Gamechanger?

The White House

 Conference on Hunger, Nutrition & Health: Food Policy Dud or Gamechanger?


When the President of the United States announces the White House will hold its first food policy conference in more than 50 years, people sit up and take notice.  That’s what happened in May when President Biden announced a White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health will be held in September.

The announcement jump started a frenzy of activity among academics, consumer activist groups, food companies, trade associations, foundations, non-governmental organizations, and a bevy of stakeholders that seek influence the event and its outcomes.

Organizers say the conference is designed to advance the President’s goal of ending hunger and reversing obesity, diabetes and hypertension by 2030.  In essence, it’s a food policy confab designed to showcase certain legislative and regulatory policies that may lead to better individual and collective public health outcomes.

Although the event date and agenda have yet to be announced, it is expected the conference will examine and recommend policy changes that incentivize consumers to decrease their consumption of calorie-dense foods and replace them with nutrient-dense foods.  To wit, the FDA has already informed public stakeholders it is doing early spadework on front-of-pack nutrition labeling and wants to highlight the agency’s activity at the White House conference.

Just to be clear, “front-of-pack nutrition labeling” is opaque nomenclature for a government-mandated traffic light system or skull and crossbones declaration for foods high in fat, sodium of sugar.

FDA’s action is a glaring Bat Signal that the agency and the Biden Administration are moving forward with an ambitious nutrition policy agenda.  What does that really mean?

It is reasonable to discern clues from the 50th Anniversary of the Nixon Administration food policy conference event at Tufts University.  The post-event report called for a plethora of food policies intended to alter consumer behavior, including:

  • A front of pack traffic light labeling system on packaged food.
  • Taxes on foods made with “harmful” ingredients.
  • Restrictions on the marketing and advertising of “unhealthy” foods.
  • Limits on what foods can be purchased with SNAP benefits.

And like the Tufts report, the White House conference will evaluate and recommend a series of government policies to move the U.S. to zero-carbon agriculture and encourage a plant-based diet.

You will hear a lot about “ultra-processed foods (UPF)” at the conference.  It’s the latest and greatest buzz phrase for those seeking more government action.  Although no one has been able to clearly define what UPF means, generally the term is used in an unflattering way to refer to products some deem too high in saturated fat, sodium or sugar content.

Together, these concepts represent an ambitious food policy agenda.  Directionally, the conference recommendations, once issued, become the federal government’s official food policy positions and its blueprint for addressing hunger and obesity.

However, if you look at the agenda closely, there are not many new ideas.  Most of these proposals have been kicking around DC food policy circles for years.  Former First Lady Michelle Obama and her husband’s Administration tried and failed to implement food taxes, front-of-pack traffic lights and restrictions on food advertising to children during their time in office. Those failures took place with Democratic control of the House and Senate.

Yes, politics matter when it comes to food policy.  Philosophical differences abound and political control of the levers of power matters.

Given the current state of American politics, no one can accurately predict what party will be running Congress or the White House over the next few years, so the official position of the federal government on food policy lurches back and forth according to the political winds.  New policies are difficult to achieve with single-party control and virtually impossible with divided government.

Still, the final recommendations of the White House food policy conference carry intellectual weight and the imprimatur of the Biden Administration.  So, as with front-of-pack labeling, FDA, USDA and other federal agencies will seek to pursue the Administration’s food policy agenda.

Then there is Congress and the courts. The House and Senate will perform their fiduciary and oversight obligations, and some rulemaking is likely to engender legal action by consumer groups or regulated entities.  For instance, it would probably take years to resolve First Amendment and compelled speech issues in the courts before a front-of-pack regulatory or legislative process could move forward.

In the meantime, far away from the White House spotlight, food companies, growers and grocers continue to reshape the food supply. It is getting healthier, more sustainable and more ethical each and every day.  While people in the corridors of power debate the merits of government mandates, the food production supply chain continues to deliver a progressively better system for consumers.

Keep an eye on the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health and the trends in food policy, but place your bets on the food supply chain to advance the cause of nutrition, sustainability and equity in the months and years to come.  Its quicker and more effective than government action.

Sean McBride is the Founder of DSM Strategic Communications, former Executive Vice President of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (now Consumer Brands Association), and former Director or Communications of the American Beverage Association