OPN Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks outside Independence Hall, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, in Philadelphia Image Credit: AP

Washington: President Joe Biden on Wednesday is hosting the first White House summit in nearly a half-century dedicated to combating hunger, with administration officials saying they have secured $8 billion in public- and private-sector commitments toward helping provide more food and better nutrition by 2030.

Biden is planning to speak at the conference, which will also feature several members of Congress - including Sens. Cory Booker and Mike Braun, as well as Reps. Rosa L. DeLauro and Jim McGovern - and several Cabinet officials. It will also include Jos Andrs, the chef and founder of World Central Kitchen, and New York Mayor Eric Adams (D).

Some 500 attendees, as well as 1,000 others joining virtually, will also attend various panels and brainstorming sessions during the day-long conference, officials said.

The White House on Tuesday released a 44-page report summarising policies that will be discussed in depth during the conference. The goal is to make healthy food more affordable and accessible and to invest in expanding physical activity options and enhancing research on food and nutrition.

The pervasiveness of diet-related diseases creates broader issues for the country, White House officials said, hampering military readiness, workforce productivity, academic achievement and mental health.

Among the specific policies Biden has already promised: expanding free school meals to 9 million more children in the next decade; improving transportation options for an estimated 40 million Americans who have low access to grocery stores or farmers markets; reducing food waste (one-third of all food in the United States goes uneaten, the White House says); conducting more screenings for food insecurity; educating health-care providers on nutrition; reducing sodium and sugar in US food products; addressing marketing that promotes fast food, sugary drinks, candy and unhealthy snacks; and building more parks in “nature-deprived communities.”

A number of these goals, however, may prove difficult without congressional action or outside assistance.

The $8 billion in funding is one of the more tangible aspects of the administration’s plan. Officials said that they have secured the pledges from more than 100 organisations, ranging from hospitals to restaurants, and that they will use the money to fund a wide variety of initiatives.

At least $2.5 billion will be invested in start-up companies attempting to come up with new solutions to hunger and food insecurity, according to the officials. More than $4 billion comes in the form of donations aimed at improving access to nutritious food, promoting healthy choices and increasing physical activity.

President Richard M. Nixon was the first to convene a White House conference on hunger in 1969, and some other administrations have sought to make it a priority in their own ways.

First lady Michelle Obama spearheaded the “Let’s Move” campaign to raise awareness about childhood obesity, though her initiative had mixed results and attracted criticism from the right.

While a number of the proposals would require congressional support, administration officials say Biden can make some short-term moves through executive action. Those include updating school nutrition standards, developing a front-of-package labelling system and expanding screening for food insecurity in the federal health-care system.

“We are not waiting to take action here but are planning to take steps in the immediate future,” said an administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview plans ahead of the conference.

Administration officials say they hope the programme will continue to expand with more funding commitments from other organizations. Still, it is unclear how strong a mechanism the federal government has to ensure the groups follow through with their pledges.

“We’ll continue to be working with the CDC Foundation to ensure that these partners execute on the actions that they’ve committed to,” the official said. “This will be ongoing work, but we certainly recognize that this is a priority and fully expect these companies to execute on what they say they’ll do.”

The CDC Foundation is a nonprofit group created by Congress that helps mobilise private resources to support the work of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.