On Wednesday September 28, 2022 I had the tremendous privilege of participating in the historic White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health. The last time this conference was held was in 1969, and it helped create life changing programs like school lunches, the Supplemental Feeding Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC), and changes to how we label foods.
This year’s conference convened elected officials, advocates, activists, leaders of business, and philanthropist from all over the country as well as President Biden. Biden’s opening remarks made a bold goal: “…to end hunger in America and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030 so fewer Americans experience diet related diseases.” While this seemed an impossible idea, being in the room with such driven, powerful, and firm believers that hunger should not exist and in fact should be illegal made me hopeful!
Members of Congress from across the political spectrum came together for this White House Conference, including U.S. Representatives James P. McGovern, U.S. Senators Cory Booker, and Mike Braun (who were the bipartisan sponsors of the conference). Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and llhan Omar, amongst others, were also in attendance (I internally squealed when I saw them but a few yards away during the opening remarks.)
Being able to attend this conference and represent the Duke World Food Policy Center and my food policy research with El Departamento de la Comida (El Depa)—a food sovereignty and mutual aid organization based out of Puerto Rico—was an immense honor. Puerto Rico has again suffered the consequences from climate change via another hurricane (Fiona) and is facing not only ongoing infrastructure issues but also food insecurity. While I do not have lived experience as a Puerto Rican because I identify as Chicana/Mexican American, during my limited time on the island I familiarized myself with their food systems, lack of resources, and identified gaps by working directly within the community and with El Depa.
As U.S. citizens we should all be advocating on behalf Puerto Rico; many people are still without power and dealing with the aftermath of Maria and now Fiona. I was ecstatic, though, to see some Puerto Ricans at the conference who were advocating for action for the island and was able to connect with them! More light needs be shined on all the work being done by locals in Puerto Rico. Please donate to El Depa if you are able too.
I attended two panels out of the ten occurring throughout the day. Each panel focused on one of the five pillars involving the Biden-Harris Administration National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health (you can find the complete strategy plan here).
The panelists were all led by people directly serving and/or advocating for communities in a range of areas which made me very happy. One particular panel I enjoyed was called, “Pillar 5B – Advancing Equitable Research: Developing Innovative Inclusive Policy Solutions.”
As an MPP (Masters in Public Policy) student, I was interested in how directly impacted individuals are informing (or not) research in this particular area. In other words, I’m interested in how research informs policy action but is not always inclusive to those directly impacted.
One ongoing theme throughout the panel and the conference was the underrepresentation of diverse individuals in the health world and in research.
I found myself asking: how many at this conference have actually experienced hunger? How many people in government elected positions understand what it is like to not know where your next meal is coming? As someone whose family used food stamps and faced some food insecurity, I evaluated how that impacted my development and my growth as well as how my lived experience can better inform food policy.
As someone whose family used food stamps and faced some food insecurity, I evaluated how that impacted my development and my growth as well as how my lived experience can better inform food policy. - Denise Rebeil
The following were some quotes that stood out to me from the panelists and the Conference talks:
Mia Ives-Rublee discussed how often disabled people are left out of the conversation of food insecurity. They brought up how disabled people suffer hunger three times more than able-bodied people but are often ignored or not included in research or policy. As she says, “I hate the term voiceless communities, no community is voiceless, you are just not listening to that community.” – Mia Ives-Rublee, Director of the Disability Justice Initiative, Center for American Progress
“Remember when we discuss data, we are talking about people.”– Jimmieka Mills, Co-Founder, Equitable Spaces
“The good ideas come from the community…Food is medicine.” – Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow
Mayor Eric Adams began presenting pre-diabetic symptoms, and once he changed his eating habits his health completely changed and offset his diabetes altogether. He expressed the following, “Going to bed with a full stomach but it is unhealthy, is feeding the American crisis…Our food is destroying our planet, our families, and children.” – Mayor Eric Adams
“Through the power of food, we unite communities…To often charity is to the benefit of the giver, instead of the liberation of the receiver.” – Chef Jose Andres
Meeting the Second Gentleman
Towards the end of the conference, they held small group working sessions related to our pillar interests. Our topic was on how research can inform action in policy. In this group, I met two researchers (Harvard and Yale scholars), a representative from Feeding America, and a businessperson assisting community Co-op’s. We collaborated and helped identify actions people can take individually and collectively to help achieve the end of hunger and reduce diet-related disease within our topic focus.
Towards the end our conversation, the second gentleman made an appearance (!!) at our discussion table with their aid. I was given the opportunity to bring forward my thoughts regarding this topic.
I told him people with lived experiences should be informing research and be encouraged to become researchers themselves because they know their communities best. I also added that if research is happening on behalf of a community, it needs to be collaborative research where they help guide and inform needs and issues.
He voiced that my recommendations had been coming up a lot within all the discussion groups he had visited. After small group conversations, it was affirming to hear the second gentleman bring up our discussions with the larger conference attendees.
There are not enough words or time to capture all of the inspiring people who spoke and I met at this conference. It was truly awakening and charged me up to press on and do more within food policy. I left reinvigorated and wanting to know more about all the different areas of food policy in existence. Some of the most interesting talks happened outside of formal panels in hallways, getting lost finding a panel room, or at lunch that I had taken with me. Below are some key takeaways from my experience.
- We need diverse individuals in the health industry and in food policy research to best serve the needs of those being disproportionately impacted by food insecurity.
- Hunger should be made illegal.
- Providing food is not enough, we need to provide nutritional food to all communities.
- This is a nonpartisan issue: lets unite forces and pass the legislature needed to ensure food insecurity is a thing of the past.
You can find the Biden-Harris Administration National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health here.
Denise Rebeil is a second year MPP student. She has served migrant children as a legal assistant, helped improve college attainment in a high school as a college advisor, built an after school program through a youth coalition as a community organizer, and worked in community to improve the lives of undocumented people. She is currently pursuing her master's in public policy at Duke University to help become a part of creating better policies in Arizona and beyond.
Photo Credit: Image of President Biden courtesy the White House