By Ashley Perry, MPH
This week the White House will convene the first national Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in over 50 years. The last conference of this nature, held during the Nixon administration, outlined a bold agenda to address hunger and advance health that resulted in the enactment of some of the most impactful food support programs in our nation’s history, including school-based meals, SNAP, and WIC. Collectively, these programs support the nutritional needs of one in four Americans today.
The Biden Administration has signaled a similarly bold and transformational vision for this week’s conference, which will include the unveiling of a new national strategy to address the intersection of food, hunger, nutrition, and health. The strategy spans five pillars addressing critical areas such as ensuring healthy food access for children, encouraging public-private partnerships, improving food environments, encouraging physical activity, and advancing an equity-focused research agenda.
Over the last several months, the Socially Determined team has had the privilege of contributing to the stakeholder planning calls leading up to the conference and has shared the following as our recommendations for the conference, the national strategy, and resulting policy and regulatory innovations:
A Policy Agenda that Explicitly Addresses the Multiple Drivers of Hunger and Diet-Related Disease
The majority of policies and programs that emerged from the last White House conference focused on addressing the challenges many Americans face being able to afford sufficient healthy food. This remains an area where we can make further progress through policy innovation and public-private partnerships. That said, in our experience assessing food insecurity risk for millions of our customers’ patients and members, we’ve consistently seen that, for many Americans, the food insecurity they face is not only – and in many cases even primarily – driven by affordability issues. In many cases, the accessibility of healthy food within their local community (or lack thereof) or personal food literacy challenges that limit their ability to prepare healthy meals in alignment with the dietary recommendations provided by their care team are the key drivers of food insecurity. In light of this, we recommend that the national framework and policy agenda stemming from it explicitly acknowledge the multi-factor nature of food insecurity and intentionally incorporate policies to address all challenges that contribute to hunger, diet-related disease, and resulting health disparities.
Increased Funding Flexibility to Support More Holistic Programs to Address Hunger and Health
Currently, siloed funding streams across federal, state, and local agencies and programs hinder stakeholders’ collective ability to address hunger and promote health in a holistic manner. Increased flexibility through the much-discussed and yet still elusive “braided and blended funding streams” will enable more integrated, innovative, and whole person-focused strategies to address hunger and health to emerge. The pillars of the national framework do not explicitly address this issue. Nevertheless, we recommend that funding flexibility be a central consideration in all policies and programs stemming from the conference to ensure that the solutions they offer are more holistic in design, financially sustainable, and operationally scalable.
Leveraging a Data-Driven, Analytics-First Approach to Advance Equity
Throughout the stakeholder planning process, we advocated that the national strategy should include a focus on more equitable approaches and more inclusive policy solutions. We are encouraged to see to see that one of the pillars of the framework focuses on this exact issue. This is critical in our view as we’ve seen that even well-designed, well-executed, evidence-based policy solutions and intervention programs can further entrench disparities, rather than advance equity, in practice. For example, our evaluation of several interventions focused on increasing food access (e.g., medically tailored meal delivery services, produce prescriptions programs) indicate that relying on self-reported social needs assessed through SDOH screening tools systematically misses individuals most likely to benefit from these programs. In contrast, taking a data-driven, analytics-first approach offers the opportunity to equitably identify communities and populations that would benefit most from effective interventions and proactively engage them in these services. In our view, truly advancing equity will require these types of proactive, inclusive, data-driven, and analytics-first approaches.
We look forward to Wednesday’s event and to continuing to advocate for solutions that will end hunger, improve health, and advance equity.
For those interested in participating in the conference, you can register to access a live stream of the event here.