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WH Conference: How to Address Hunger and Health?

Background

On September 28, I virtually attented the long awaited (first time in over 50 years!) White House Conference on Hunger Nutrition and Health.  The conference was accompanied by the release of a very long and comprehensive National Strategy to address five key pillars:

  • Improve food access and affordability.
  • Integrate nutrition and health.
  • Empower all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices.
  • Support physical activity for all.
  • Enhance nutrition and food security research.

The ambitious goal is to eliminate hunger and reduce diet related diseases by 2030.  Since I created Yumbini to provide healthy, convenient and good tasting food to as many people as possible, this is all music to my ears!

The conference

It was a packed agenda starting with President Biden, and featuring speakers largely from community organizations, but also including government, academia, and industry.  Chef Jose Andres of World Central Kitchen gave a rousing and animated talk stressing that “a meal is so much more than a plate of calories, it is a plate of hope”.  He referenced an 1826 quote by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: “The future of the nations will depend on the manner of how they feed themselves”, and urged everyone to “build longer tables, not higher walls”.

Of course, increasing access to fruits and vegetables featured prominently.  While a few speakers referenced “fresh” fruits and vegetables, I was happy to see that the word “fresh” did not appear in the National Strategy.  If you are wondering, there is certainly nothing wrong with fresh fruits and vegetables.  But on the other hand, nutritionists agree there is nothing wrong with frozen, canned or dried fruits and vegetables either.  Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables in all forms.  Fresh produce is highly perishable and not always the most practical or economical choice.

In his recap of the event, I was also heartened to note that Jason Wilson of Partnership for a Healthier America noted “It’s essential that this campaign focus on healthy foods – like vegetables, fruits and beans.”  (Hooray, a plug for BEANS!)

But, going back to the goals of the conference, there seemed to be more emphasis on addressing hunger than reducing diet related diseases.  After all, as 17 year old speaker Avani Rai expressed so clearly, “We live in a country where hunger absolutely should not be a problem”.

But what about diet related disease?

The National Strategy lays out clearly the heavy toll our poor diet is having on our health.  Amazingly, one in 10 Americans have diabetes, and one in 3 will have cancer in their lifetime.  More than 4 in 10 Americans (almost half!) have high blood pressure.  The report states bluntly: “…Americans do not eat enough vegetables, fruits, or whole grains and eat too much saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.”  And unfortunately, “the toll of hunger and diet-related diseases is not distributed equally; these challenges disproportionately impact communities of color, people living in rural areas, people living in territories, people with disabilities, older adults, LGBTQI+ people, military families, and Veterans.”

As my favorite speaker Avani Rai said about the American food supply, “We don’t have a quantity problem, we have a quality problem”.

We know that, with diet, many of these diseases can be prevented, or even reversed.  The Mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, shared his story of being diagnosed with diabetes and told he would go blind.  Instead of accepting, he converted to a strict plant-based diet and was able to fully recover.  I later found out that former President Bill Clinton had a similar transformation.

What will it take?

While many programs to relieve hunger are already in place, convincing Americans to change their diets to improve their health, is, as they say, “a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish”!  I think it will require the following:

  • Recognition and clear understanding that diet and disease are related.  Most people, and many doctors think diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure are diseases that just happen to people, like catching the flu.  They don’t realize (and are not told) they might have been prevented (and could be reversible) with better diet.  How can we get this message to patients and the healthcare industry?
  • The meat and cheese elephant in the room.  You will notice that the National Strategy states Americans “eat too much saturated fat, sodium and added sugars”.  Most people know sodium means salt, and they know what sugar is.  But many may not realize that saturated fat almost always comes from animal sources.  We are talking about hamburgers and pizza.  Take a look at these maps to see what I mean.  Will the government be able to fight the meat and dairy lobby to tell people straight out to stop eating so much meat and cheese?  Let’s find out.
  • What is healthy food?  In addition to the saturated fat – meat and dairy connection, there is massive confusion among Americans regarding what makes food “healthy”.  Low carb? Low fat?  High fat?  Ultra-processed? Plant-based or Paleo?  There are plenty of extremes out there, but the balanced advice of dieticians is often drowned out.  Coinciding with the conference, the FDA relased a “Proposed Rule” to redefine “healthy”.  I will cover this very complicated document in a separate post, but rest assured Yumbini will meet the criteria!  Lets hope this can help people make healthy choices in the supermarket and improve their health!

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