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Kentucky anti-hunger advocates hope to see ambitious plans at White House hunger conference

Liam Niemeyer

Anti-hunger advocates in Kentucky are hoping to hear ambitious policies, ideas and plans to tackle food insecurity in a conference this week on hunger hosted by the Biden administration.

The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health on Wednesday aims to end hunger and increase physical activity and healthy eating by 2030, among other goals that include improving nutrition and researching food security.

It’s been more than 50 years since the first White House conference on hunger — held in 1969 by Richard Nixon’s presidential administration — led to several landmark policy changes including Congress permanently implementing a school breakfast program and creating a food assistance program for women, children and infants that’s known today as WIC.

The Community Farm Alliance, a nonprofit aiming to bolster local food systems in Kentucky, helped organize one of the listening sessions held across the country ahead of the conference. CFA Executive Director Martin Richards served on a nationwide task force in planning for the conference that created a comprehensive report of recommendations to tackle food insecurity, poor nutrition and more. He hopes the conference will help rethink where food comes from.

“A number of these [nationwide] diet and nutrition related health issues are a direct result of access to large quantities of cheap, cheap calories that are highly refined,” Richards said. “Hunger and poor nutrition are a symptom of a system that is not working well.”

Richards said a lot of the feedback he offered to the task force focused on the needs of rural communities and their differences from urban areas, especially regarding food security.

Cassidy Wheeler, advocacy coordinator for the food bank network Feeding Kentucky, said she hopes the conference will provide an opportunity for those directly impacted by hunger to be heard, not just experts and leaders of various organizations.

“There's no eliminating hunger and the health issues caused by it without talking to folks who are hungry,” Wheeler said. “I think that's a super valuable perspective, both for people like me to hear and also the legislators and people who are influencing policy.”

Wheeler said to meet the ambitious goal of eliminating hunger across the country by 2030, many policy changes would need to take place including getting governments “to stop cutting benefits” and “pour funds into our safety net.”

She said boosting that safety net means strengthening access to low-income food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Feeding America, a national nonprofit representing over 200 food banks across the country, is recommending the White House remove eligibility barriers that prevent some low-income people from receiving SNAP benefits.

The U.S. Census Bureau has conducted semi-frequent surveys on food insecurity throughout the pandemic. The latest survey in Kentucky found, as of early August, nearly 300,000 people said they either “sometimes” or “often” had not enough to eat.

Tyler Offerman, a food justice fellow with the nonprofit law advocacy group Kentucky Equal Justice Center, said the conference is a prime opportunity to consider extending some of the extra funding and flexibilities offered for food assistance programs like SNAP that were implemented due to the economic burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of these programs are ending right when inflation and hardship are exponentially increasing for people’s lives,” Offerman said.

The Biden administration is proposing several policies ahead of the conference that would require legislation to be implemented, including expanding school meals to all students and making it easier for students to receive meals over the summer.