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'Get on board': McGovern says White House hunger conference the beginning, not the end

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., in this file photo from 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite
House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., in this file photo from 2019.

The White House is hosting a conference all day Wednesday on hunger, nutrition and health — the first such event in more than 50 years.

The conference in 1969, hosted by the Nixon Administration, led to the creation or expansion of the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, the food stamp program and nutritional labeling, according to U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.

McGovern said there has been a backslide to progress since then. The Worcester Democrat has long called for another hunger conference, noting more than 35 million Americans are identified as "food insecure."

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern: We have kids going to school hungry, senior citizens ending up in emergency rooms because they're taking their medication on an empty stomach because they can't afford the cost of their prescriptions and to pay for groceries. It's a solvable problem that we're not solving.

And part of the challenge is that in Congress things are pretty siloed. So if you want to talk about the SNAP program, that's the Agriculture Committee. If you want to talk about school meals, that's the Education and Labor Committee. If you want to talk about food as medicine, that's the Energy and Commerce Committee or Ways and Means Committee.

And the whole point of this conference is to get everybody in a room, not just government, but the nonprofit sector, the faith-based sector and the private sector. Let's all come together and come up with a holistic plan and then insist that we implement it.

Kari Njiiri, NEPM: How has the pandemic impacted hunger?

Well, the pandemic made things worse. You know, there are a lot of people who never even thought that they would ever be food insecure, who were all of a sudden showing up in lines for food boxes and going to food banks and food pantries.

But I'm hoping that, as we come out of this pandemic, that there's a greater awareness and a greater sensitivity with regard to this problem.

The conference will also look at nutrition, given that diet-related chronic disease is a top cause of death in the U.S. We already know that diet and exercise, or the lack thereof, is chiefly responsible for our present condition. What tangible goals do you hope will come out of the conference?

We need to do better on nutrition at every level. We need to support initiatives like we're doing in Massachusetts, the Healthy Incentives Initiative, which for those on SNAP, get additional value to their snap dollar if they buy fresh produce at farmer's markets. It also helps our farmers as well.

We need to do better about labeling. Anybody who goes to a supermarket and tries to buy good stuff, lots of luck. I mean, you see products that are labeled "natural." It means nothing.

And then the final thing I'm going to say is that our medical systems need to embrace food as medicine. Why is it when you go to the doctors, you can get a prescription for a high-priced pharmaceutical, but you can't get a produce prescription?

There's been some criticism that the details of what will actually happen at the conference are scant and that people are frustrated by the lack of transparency. And they worry that this may amount to what some skeptics have been calling a glorified press event. How do you plan to ensure that there will be transparency and actually generate results from the conference?

Well, first of all, I've never been involved in anything that has been more transparent and more thorough — countless listening sessions in person and virtually.

And one of the differences here is that featured speakers at a lot of these events are not just the same old, same old. They are people with lived experiences. So I feel really good about the process and about those who have been involved.

And look, [Wednesday] is the beginning. It's not the end. It's the beginning. The follow-up is going to be what is important here, making sure everybody keeps their commitments. And then we're going to have to reconvene and constantly, you know, hold people's feet to the fire.

I am hopeful. And to the skeptics, you know what? Get on board. It'd be nice if you got into the fight and helped us end this terrible problem once and for all.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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