Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health Long Overdue
May 11, 2022
By Mariana Chilton, Director, Center for Hunger-Free Communities
Last week, the White House announced that for the first time in 50 years, it will host a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in September 2022.
I am thrilled that the White House is finally committing to create a national strategy to end hunger by 2030. This is long overdue. The U.S. is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to ensuring its people have enough and consistent quality food to eat. There are over twenty countries that have inserted the right to food and right to be free from hunger in their constitutions, including Brazil and South Africa.
I want to expect the best from the Biden administration. That is: that this is the beginning of a longstanding commitment by the U.S. government to the health and wellbeing of people who have suffered for generations due to government inaction on hunger and poverty. But only time will tell.
Keys to Conference Success
For this meeting to bring about real change, we must come to it by owning up to the reality that so-called solutions to address food insecurity have been inadequate. Yes, I’m talking about nutrition assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and emergency food programs. Thousands of people over many decades have worked hard to make these programs and policies more targeted and robust.
We will know if the U.S. government and the Biden administration is serious about ending hunger if we see:
- Inclusive and meaningful dialogue at the conference with long standing and legally codified commitments to ensuring the right to food
- People who have experienced food insecurity invited to lead a majority of the discussions and identify solutions and ways to evaluate progress
We will know that the Biden administration is not serious about its commitment to end hunger if they:
- Do not embrace human rights and racial and gender justice in their efforts
- Invite the large multi-national corporations contributing to poverty and hunger in the U.S. to sponsor and headline the event
Why Does Hunger Still Exist?
If we have all these programs that came out of the last conference, then how is it that food insecurity persists?
The injustice of hunger in America is rooted in generations of racism, genocide, intentional starvation, and enslavement of Indigenous, African, and Black people. Through colonialism, racism, and sexism, the dynamics of enslavement and genocide are still playing out today. We cannot truly solve food insecurity without addressing this history as well as how racism and discrimination are at play in the present.
We also must avoid the false perspective known as “white saviorism,” where white people think they are helping poor and Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, in a move that implies false innocence and that we are not part of the problem. We cannot change the system until we acknowledge our place in it.
What follows are policy solutions that address hunger from many different angles we just might be able to end hunger and create conditions for flourishing.
For the White House to get started, there are three important solutions that must be made a priority to underscore all other policy change efforts.
Formalize the Right to Food
The U.S. must codify in the constitution that every person has the right to be free from hunger, and food is a fundamental human right. This includes creating a national strategy to end hunger that is transparent, inclusive, and accountable to the U.S. public and engages all public and private institutions that deal with food health and wellbeing to commit to ensuring the right to food.
Embrace Food Sovereignty
All levels of government must create the economic, social, and zoning conditions that ensure local communities have greater sovereignty over their food systems and to restrict the large multi-national food companies and large factory farms from destroying the quality and availability of food for people who have been marginalized and discriminated against (primarily women and Black, Indigenous, and all people of color).
Protect and Repair the Planet
In enacting the above efforts, we must ensure they contribute not only to human health but to the health of ecosystems and the planet. This includes federal nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC.
Healing, Repairing, and Sensing
First are solutions rooted in a need for love, care, and healing to address individual and collective trauma.
Enact Reparation and Rematriation/Repatriation Efforts for African American and Indigenous People
It is not just financial renumeration; reparations must also focus on health, healing, education, peace, justice, and cooperation. The U.S. must acknowledge and restore treaty rights, Indigenous foods, and land, and restore balance through return of seeds, artifacts, and human remains.
Undo White Supremacy Culture
White supremacy culture is broad, complex, and oppressive. Its major characteristics include perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, appreciation of quantity over quality, outsized worship of the written word, conviction that there is only one right way to do something, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, individualism, love of “progress,” insistence on the falsehood of objectivity, and right to comfort. These characteristics help people thrive in office culture, politics, business, academia, philanthropy, the judicial system, education, and health care and are deeply rooted in all public assistance programs in the U.S. To overcome it, we must embrace empathy, shared decision-making and power, teamwork, and building relationships.
End Rape Culture and Protect Bodily Rights
Sexual violence should not be the norm. We need to develop a culture that promotes self-control and teaches everyone to recognize enthusiastic consent through ongoing communication, asking permission, and ensuring that there is yes on a continuous basis (not just the absence of no). We must also ensure all people have access to safe and adequate healthcare to make informed decisions about their bodies and their lives.
Embrace Trauma-informed, Healing-centered Programming and Policy
Healing-centered approaches acknowledge how exposure to violence and trauma have broad and penetrating effects on emotional, physical, and financial health. People who experience poverty or who have little money for housing and food are very likely to have experienced trauma. All policies and programming, but especially those oriented toward people with low incomes, must acknowledge that trauma and should have goals of healing, not compliance and punishment.
Improving Standard Approaches
Secondly, are necessary improvements to policies and programs already in place or in the national dialogue.
Employ a Two-Generation Approach
Programs do not just affect individuals but have ripple effects in families and communities. Therefore, all programs should consider at least two generations and the bonding between caregivers and their children. Separating children from their parents should be a last resort after providing all possible support. All programs and policies should resist the government tendency to reduce every person to a “unit” that can be separated from others who are important to them.
Limit Program Paperwork and Digitize Systems
Many public assistance programs demand lengthy paperwork for administration, eligibility, and ongoing participation. During the pandemic, much of this paperwork was reduced or eliminated, bringing some programs into the twenty-first century. These changes must remain. If they worked during the pandemic, they should become standard operating procedure. Everyone should be able to go online to check eligibility, maintain benefits, and submit documentation. Establish page limits to all applications to ideally no more than two pages.
Improve Existing Nutrition Assistance Programs
- Provide an extra $30 dollars per child per summer month to SNAP eligible parents to avoid “summer hunger”
- Change the SNAP benefit calculation to accommodate the true cost of housing by adjusting calculations to accommodate regional market rates
- Extend eligibility for SNAP from six months to one year to reduce income volatility and the cliff effect
- Provide free school breakfast and lunch to all children at all schools
- Provide ample recurring funds and technical assistance for FDIPR that are indexed for inflation to Native communities directly
Improve the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)/Welfare Program
- Increase eligibility to 100% of the Federal Poverty Line
- Triple the cash grant amount
- Abolish the asset limit
- Train all Agency for Children and Families services leadership, mid-level bureaucrats, and frontline workers in healing-centered, trauma-informed customer service and holding workers accountable for maintaining a culture of healing
Expand Medicaid to All States
Improve Worker Protections Through Federal Labor Law Changes
- Increase minimum wage to at least $22.50 and indexing to inflation, forever
- Abolish the tipped minimum wage
- Provide family leave and medical leave for all employees regardless of whether they work part time or full time
- Establish national fair work week standards
Improve Social Security and Disability Benefits
Benefit payments must be increased to ensure the elderly and people with disabilities remain food secure.
Transforming at the Roots
The final group of policy solutions are rooted in an abolitionist framework and demand courage to change our nation at the core and end food and economic security for good.
Implement Universal Basic Income
Universal Basic Income (UBI) guarantees a set amount of money to every person with no means test or work requirement. It would be paid for by taxing the ultra-wealthy. Over time, UBI would replace means-tested programs, such as TANF and SNAP, that exacerbate and even justify stigma against people who are poor.
Implement Medicare for All (Universal Healthcare)
When our system fails to support people in meeting their basic needs, their health suffers, and it costs our health system billions of dollars every year. Tying health care to employment is problematic, forcing people to stay in exploitive job environments or tying people’s health to the precariousness of employment, as was seen during the pandemic. For many, the cost of health insurance, co-pays, and medical debt will keep them from ever becoming financially secure. Establishing universal healthcare will reduce health care expenditures on an individual and societal level and improve overall health.
Implement Free, Universal Childcare
For many families, the cost of childcare is the largest single household expense - more than housing. Accessible and affordable childcare would increase the number of women in the workforce and reduce poverty, especially for women of color by helping them earn more money, gain financial freedom, and build wealth. However, it is also important that all childcare workers are paid living wages to support women’s economic power.
Abolish Prisons and Embrace Transformative Justice
Many people in prison have not been convicted of a crime; rather they are stuck in prison simply because they cannot pay bail. Today, many states still have bail systems that penalize those in poverty. Coupled with the ongoing militarization of police and prison gerrymandering, the criminal justice system has been organized to oppress communities of color and keep people unhealthy and in poverty. Transformative justice, on the other hand, recognizes the inadequacies to address trauma in our justice system. It focuses on collective liberation to create a more loving and respectful society by focusing on changing conditions to ensure safety, connection, accountability, and dignity for all. Prison abolition and reallocating from the police would allow money invested in controlling people to be redirected to community safety, beautification, behavioral health, housing, and food. Abolition is about working toward a world where people would have no need to break the law.
Support Solidarity and Sharing Communities, Not Charity
Capitalism is a trauma-organized system. It relies on dehumanizing and devaluating people and labor. A solidarity economy includes many types of sharing and mutual aid processes such as cooperatives that help people earn a living, share resources, and stay connected. Charity, on the other hand, is predicated on a power dynamic where the wealthy bestow kindness and goodness to others who do not have power. It is a one-way relationship that focuses attention on the giver rather than the receiver. To join people in solidarity demands that “givers” be accountable to group - where they share power, resources, and trust. Traditional emergency food, such as food banks and pantries, are based in a charity model, but they can adopt a cooperative approach grounded in solidarity that promotes belonging, dignity, and freedom.