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Wherefore, White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition & Health?
Twelve days away, yet still no agenda, in a “secretive” process
The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition & Health has been promoted as a landmark event, the first since President Nixon hosted the original one in 1969. Yet only 12 days away, the agenda and other details of the September 28th conference are still a blank, in a process that even insiders have called “secretive.” White House staffers are nominally in charge, but the substance of the event has been in the works for years, in efforts led by Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy, who has been supported by a broad array of public health interests as well as the investment community, the processed food industry, and a Who’s Who of the D.C. establishment.
Notably absent from the lead-up efforts are the nation’s major ‘real food’ producers and virtually anyone with expertise on reversing type 2 diabetes, a major disease that organizers seek to address.
For Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), an early champion of the effort, ending hunger is the conference focus. “Close to 40 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is going to come from,” he told Agri-pulse. “This is a big problem. It's a costly problem. And it's a solvable problem. And that's what this White House Conference is going to be all about.” McGovern has tackled the hunger issue with vigor and played a lead role in securing the $2.5 million appropriation by Congress to fund the conference. It’s not clear, however, if any of McGovern’s goals will be realized.
Meanwhile, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who chaired a hearing on the conference, is more interested in changing front-of-package labeling. In a Sept. 1 press release, he said, “Front-of-package labeling—such as warning labels or stoplights that signal to consumers if the food product is too high in salt, added sugar, or saturated fat—can promote more equitable access to nutrition information, encourage companies to reformulate their products to be healthier, and encourage healthier diets.”
Mozaffarian’s more general long-term ambition is seemingly to expand the role of government in nutrition, via medical education, research, feeding programs, etc. The idea is to promote more of the government’s nutrition guidelines, in more settings, to more people. With support from Tufts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Silicon Valley investor Joon Yun, Mozaffarian has been pursuing these ideas since 2017 at least.
Yun and Mozaffarian/ M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO
In focusing on food as a way to treat diet-related diseases, the Tufts leader correctly diagnoses the state of our current national health crisis: a crushingly expensive problem that could best be treated by nutrition, since better food can actually reverse chronic diseases, versus drugs, which merely prolong them.
Mozaffarian has written that a “low starch & sugar diet” gets “you 80% there” [for improving health] and owns shares in a company that produces grain-free products. Yet paradoxically, he recently published a food rating system that ranked Lucky Charms, Cheerios and 70 other brand-name cereals as healthier than a boiled egg.
Whatever his personal views, Mozaffarian’s “Task Force Informing the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health” decided to promote the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as its nutritional approach of choice. In a report published only a few weeks ago, many of the 40 recommendations call for expanding the reach of this government policy, which has governed our thinking on nutrition since 1980. Following the guidelines are no doubt superior to the processed-food laden diet consumed by many Americans, but these recommendations still call for 6 servings of grains, including 3 of refined-grains, and 10% of calories as sugar, every day. Following the guidelines to a tee also fails to meet nutrient targets for Iron, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Choline, and Folate.
Nutrition-Reform Train has Already Left the Station
A separate Mozaffarian-led team authored a White Paper, published in March 2020 by Tufts, with related events hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. More government-funded nutrition research is needed, said the report. Authors included several former employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a former Secretary of Agriculture (Dan Glickman), and a former FDA Commissioner (David Kessler), among others, and was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Tufts has since launched its “Federal Nutrition Policy Advisory Group” with many of the same people, to work on implementing the White-Paper recommendations. Already, they’ve managed to get a 2021 report, by the Government Accountability Office, on the need to coordinate government nutrition programs under a single federal agency. These proposals are also being carried forward in the White House Conference via the “FoodFix Campaign,” run by Dr. Mark Hyman, Senior Advisor for the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine.
Mozaffarian’s efforts to expand the government’s work on nutrition has been underway since January 2018, when Tufts helped set up a “Food As Medicine Working Group” on Capitol Hill, chaired by the University’s home-state representative, Jim McGovern (D-MA).
Since then, the FoodFix Campaign together with Tufts have worked to get language for a proposed $2,000,000 Food As Medicine pilot program inserted into the 2023 report of the House Committee on Appropriations, which has not yet passed. Delivering fresh food or medically tailored meals to people in need has long been a compelling idea, but of course the devil is in the details. The House report language stipulates only that the meals must include “pesticide-free regenerative or regenerative organic produce.”
Your Invitation is in the Mail
It might come as a surprise to the many groups who’ve been sitting in on bi-weekly “update” calls for the conference to learn that so many of the event’s course coordinates have already been locked in. I was told by one of the organizers that the event was “a once-in-a-generation” opportunity to influence nutrition policy, but getting a seat at the table has been elusive for many.
It's clear that organizers had to scramble to generate public participation, or at least the appearance of it, when President Biden committed to the conference on May 4th. A series of “listening sessions” were held from June 2-15th, in which groups were urged to share “ideas and stories” in three-minute allotments. “Partner-led” convenings were also encouraged, with proposals due July 15th (or later, for some groups). The White House website lists about 40 such convenings, held by a strange assortment of entities: everything from an artificial intelligence company called Unbox and the nonprofit Unidos por la Musico, to the more relevant American Society for Nutrition. The resulting proposals have not been made public, nor the names of the people considering them.
This last-minute endeavor has been viewed as little more than window dressing by some, and a number of major stakeholders objected to the apparent lack of a truly inclusive process. A letter to the President on September 8th, from the nations’ largest real-food producers, including soybean, wheat, barley, and corn growers, along with egg and beef producers, made clear that they had not been invited and urged the Administration “to ensure America’s farmers and ranchers have a seat at the table for this discussion.” Agriculture was a “key partner” in the 1969 White House conference, stated the letter, and as “the literal base of the food chain,” should be again.
Also notably absent from the process is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the lead agency that administers the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Some $800 billion in USDA feeding programs are driven by these guidelines, including school lunches and programs for the elderly. On August 10th, Republican leader of the House Committee on Agriculture, Glenn Thompson, sent a letter to the White House, asking why the USDA was not involved in the conference and also criticized “the minimal outreach, organization, and programming of the Conference” that does “not appear inclusive of all stakeholders.” The Administration “seems to be hand-selecting participants to drive a specific narrative and outcome related to the creation of a national strategy,” alleged the letter.
As for McGovern’s hunger agenda, a long list of hunger groups teamed up to participate, yet it appears a major push thus far has been to keep sugar-sweetened beverages included in “SNAP” (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) for the poor, a battle they’ve reportedly won. Score one for Coke and Pepsi, which in the past have funded hunger groups such as Feeding America.
The many food industry and investor interests lined up behind the conference are no doubt expecting windfall opportunities. Expansions of government feeding programs would mean more food contracts for companies like PepsiCo, which has a K-12 “Passion to Please” menu that includes Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos and Lays. Perhaps this was a reason for PepsiCo’s CMO consistently headlining the series of “Food As Medicine” conferences rolled out nationwide over the past two years, alongside Mozaffarian, always the Keynote speaker. (One person’s Food-As-Medicine is clearly another person’s guilty junk-food binge!)
Other investors in the conference mix include Food Systems for the Future (one of four conveners of the Task Force report), Dan Glickman (Task Force Co-Chair, White Paper author, and Partner at Harvest Partners, a private equity firm), Sam Kass (Task Force member and founding partner of the investment company Trove), Joon Yun (Funder and participant in multiple events, main funder of the unofficial conference website, and Managing Member, Palo Alto Investors), plus many multinational food companies, including Unilever, Kroger, General Mills, Mars, Nestlé and PepsiCo., which supported the Tufts White Paper.
Amidst the swirling set of competing, conflicting agendas around this conference, only a few things are clear: the train has already left the station on a number of initiatives; The conference process has excluded important experts and stakeholders; If the organizers have their way, we will see more of the Dietary Guidelines in more settings—which would be well and good if the guidelines actually reflected the most recent science on disease remission, yet tragically, they' don’t; And we’re pretty sure that many non-medicine-like food items such as pizzas with extra cheese are on the late-night menu for White House staffers still toiling away, with less than a baker’s dozen worth of days remaining, to release a simple agenda for this momentous event.
Below is an incomplete list of the events leading up the conference:
August 23, 2022: Report issued by the “Task Force Informing the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health”
Report with 40 policy recommendations
Co-chaired by Mozaffarian, former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, Chef José Andrés, Senator Bill Frist, and Ambassador Etharin Cousin
Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, World Central Kitchen (Chef Andrés), and Silicon Valley actors: Yun Family Foundation (Joon Yun, hedge fund manager), Bia-Echo Foundation (wife of Google co-founder, Sergey Brin), and the HAND Foundation (apparently via a $35,000 in donations to World Central Kitchen)
February 2022: Congressional Briefing on Food As Medicine “Spotlighting the Power and Innovation of the Private Sector to Improve Nutrition”
With Jim McGovern, among others
With support from the Rockefeller Foundation
November 2021 Senate Hearing on Nutrition and Hunger
Senator Cory Booker is Chair
Mozzafarian is the lead expert to testify
October 2021 Bipartisan bill introduced directing the President to convene a White House Conference on Nutrition, Hunger and Health
Has not been passed by Congress
April 13, 2021, Congressional Briefing: “Building America’s Nutrition Security Infrastructure”
Hosted by Tufts Friedman School
Led by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Moderated by Mozaffarian
November 2020, Federal Nutrition Policy Advisory Group formed by Tufts to work on recommendations of the March report.
Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation
·March 2020: White Paper published by Tufts University, with events hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Council
Recommended increasing nutrition research, with better coordination and/or more central control
Lead author is Sheila Fleischhacker (USDA employee); second (last) author is Mozaffarian. Other authors include: Dan Glickman, David Kessler, Joon Yun, former Senator Tom Harkin, Catherine Woteki (former USDA Undersecretary and former global director of scientific affairs for Mars, Inc.) and Angie Tagtow, former USDA official, in charge of the 2015 dietary guidelines.
Endorsed by many groups, including corporations PepsiCo., Kroger, and General Mills.
Paper is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and Michael Meyers, Managing Director of Policy at Rockefeller, is on the Policy Advisory Group for this effort..
Oct 2019: 50th Anniversary of the 1969 White House Conference
Events held in Washington, D.C. and Boston
Co-hosted by Tufts University and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Speakers include Harvard and Tufts professors, Glickman, and Marshall Matz, one of the original architects of the Senate’s Dietary Goals report that was the precursor to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
January 2018, Congressional Food As Medicine Working Group launched
Bi-partisan, 4 person group led by Jim McGovern (D-MA)
Aided by Tufts Friedman School
At the launch event, McGovern introduces the Friedman school as the “only graduate school of nutrition in North America”
Mozaffarian is the lead panelist.
Report by the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, Chapter 14, p. 10.