An earlier version of this story inaccurately said that more than 73 percent of Americans 15 or older are obese. That number refers to Americans who are overweight or obese. The story has been corrected.
The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health comes as Americans wrestle with rising food costs and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says may have exacerbated obesity in the United States.
The pervasiveness of diet-related diseases creates broader issues for the country, the White House said. It hurts military readiness, workforce productivity, academic achievement and mental health. It also increases health-care costs for cash-strapped American families, the White House said.
It is “an urgent, nutrition-related health crisis,” it said in a statement.
In a 44-page summary of its dietary policies to be unveiled at the conference, the Biden administration pledged to make healthful food more affordable and accessible and to invest in expanding physical-activity options and enhancing research on food and nutrition.
Among the specific policies President Biden has 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 U.S. food products; addressing marketing that promotes fast food, sugary drinks, candy and unhealthy snacks; and building more parks in “nature-deprived communities.”
Previous administrations have sought to improve dietary health. Federal efforts date at least as far back as President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1906 signed the first U.S. food safety legislation into law.
More recently, as first lady, Michelle Obama spearheaded the “Let’s Move” campaign to raise awareness about childhood obesity, but her initiative had mixed results and attracted criticism from the right.
President Richard M. Nixon was the first to convene a White House conference on hunger in 1969, and this week’s conference has roots in a recent bipartisan push. Last year, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a longtime proponent of the fight against hunger, introduced a bill that would allot funds to hold a White House conference on food and health. The bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) and Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.).
At the time, Braun expressed support for “a bipartisan and common-sense approach” toward tackling hunger, while Walorksi, who died in a car crash last month, said fighting food insecurity and “eliminating barriers that are holding back families from success are bipartisan priorities.”
“Hunger doesn’t have to exist in this country,” McGovern said on MSNBC. “We have lacked the political will to connect all the dots and end it once and for all. America has an abundance of food. We live in the richest country in the history of the world.”