Debbie Almontaser

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2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health

On September 28th, I had the opportunity to attend the historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. The last time the White House held a conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health was in 1969 hosted by the Nixon Administration. It’s astonishing that it was 53 years ago. What resulted from the first conference are the following essential programs: SNAP, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, and the National School Lunch Program.

Making the cut for an invitation was no easy feat for me and others who eagerly wanted to attend.  I am grateful for receiving an invitation among the 600 people that were invited.  I eagerly wanted to attend because for the last 5 years I have lived and breathed the importance of equity and inclusion, even in the food space. Many don’t see how food insecurity is also inequitable and not accessible to ethnic and religious communities.

My first advocacy project was with Halal food in the NYC Public School System where I advocated for $1million for a pilot program in 2018 in 10 schools and today it is in 75 schools. My hope is in the next couple of years, halal food will be served in all 1800 schools. 

In 2020, I found myself again advocating for halal food and culturally mindful food during the pandemic.  It has been quite a journey of grit and learning that led me to participate in NYC’s 10 year food policy plan with the Mayor’s office followed by this past June participating in the Mayor’s joint White House listening session where thought leaders offered feedback nationally leading up to the development of a 44-page summary of its National Strategy released before the conference focusing on 5 pillars:

  1. Improve Food Access & Affordability

  2. Integrate Nutrition & Health

  3. Empower All Consumers to Make and Have Access to Healthy Choices

  4. Support Physical Activity for All

  5. Enhance Nutrition & Food Security Research

Now that I have given context why I care deeply about food insecurity and policy, I’d like to share some thoughts from this historic day.

The conference opened with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack followed by a directly impacted woman who then introduced President Joe Biden. The President passionately said, “That’s why we’re here today, to harness our greatest resource: Our fellow Americans. Everyone has an important role to play,” was what he emphasized to the audience. His speech encompassed food and farming, solving hunger, diet-related factors like obesity and heart disease, and many other factors that were critically important. 

We also got to hear from food superhero Rep. Jim McGovern whom this conference would not have been possible if it weren’t for his advocacy to make it happen. Rep. McGovern emphatically said that hunger should be illegal. That was profound for me.  I wholeheartedly agree whether you live in the U.S. or in a third world country, no one should be hungry.  What we fail to understand is the world is full of abundance, and we need to level the playing field for all to have access no matter their socio economic status. 

We also heard from Second Gentleman, Douglas Emhoff, Senators Braun and Booker, Ambassador Susan Rice, Mayor Eric Adams who shared the groundbreaking work being done in NYC and many others. I was moved by the collective of leaders from both sides of the aisle who were calling for a national strategy on hunger, nutrition, and health like Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Ayana Presely, and Judy Chu.  In addition, we heard from thought leaders and directly impacted individuals that painted a stark picture of what it feels like to sleep hungry and worry about your family’s next meal.  

The conference was closed out with renowned chef and prominent anti-hunger advocate, Keynote Jose Andres, who started his speech by saying: “Today is a historic day…and it’s only the start of what we all must do to solve this problem.”

The charge was to holistically take into consideration the young and old and everyone in between.  I was thrilled to hear calls for universal school feeding programs where every child is fed no matter their socioeconomic status. This is the right thing to do globally. It made sense during the pandemic and absolutely makes sense to continue post pandemic.

There was also a call for an organized mobilization among food and farm workers, especially those in fields and processing plants around the country. This was the first time I have ever heard of such a call given what farmers have endured for decades in our country. It was a truly moving and powerful call for such an action putting food system workers in the forefront to make change for themselves and their families. 

In conclusion, the words that stuck with me the most was Rep McGovern saying loud and clear,  “[The conference] is an opportunity, and we can’t blow it.”  He charged us with continuing the dialogue and advocacy for our communities. This advocacy is plain and simple, we must call on our representatives to pass legislation to end food insecurity such as the bipartisan Food Donation Improvement Act, which has the potential to help food businesses reduce food waste by allowing them to donate it to soup kitchens and pantries that support communities in need. To learn more about the Act, and take action  here.

Lastly, if you are inspired to learn more about the conference, check out the White House website and watch different segments of the conference to experience the hope and inspiration I did that day.