Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Speaks at the White Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health

Finding Value in the White House Nutrition Show

With the benefit of a few days to reflect, we can find value in the big White House Conference on Nutrition, Hunger, and Health. Admittedly, it was nice to see obesity clearly identified as one of the diseases – just like hypertension and diabetes – that can result from poor nutrition. But this was never really going to be about obesity. It was all about nutrition and equity, as Marion Nestle so nicely explained:

“The conference had a laser-like focus on ending hunger and hunger inequities. Although there was much talk of diet-related diseases, it was not at all about preventing obesity and its chronic disease consequences in the general population. Instead, its aim was to make sure that poor people, especially those of color, have access to healthy, culturally appropriate diets at a price they can afford.”

Hunger Distorts Nutrition and Health

Bertrand Cooper is a writer in Los Angeles who grew up in abject poverty and finds himself still haunted by hunger, despite having achieved extraordinary economic success. In a childhood filled with adversity, he says hunger had the most profound effects:

“Going without food is the hardest. The urban sociologist William Julius Wilson once said that what he distinctly remembered about growing up in rural poverty was hunger. Wilson grew up Black and poor in a family of seven during the 1940s. That a survivor of Jim Crow and its racist horrors recalls hunger as a defining torment says a lot.

“Paradoxically, the worst of poverty’s afflictions becomes a tool for managing it. Not eating was so vital to my getting out of poverty that whenever I hear my middle- and upper-class peers talking about their inability to abide some new diet, for one or two callous moments, I think, ‘There’s someone who wouldn’t have escaped.’”

Thus, even today, even though he’s never truly hungry, he never feels fully satisfied by food unless he binges. But he has sufficient wealth to help cope with the consequences.

Poverty Contributes to Obesity Risk

Brett Watson, Mouhcine Guettabi, and Matthew Reimer analyzed the effects of Alaska’s universal income payments on childhood obesity. They found that these payments did indeed serve to reduce childhood obesity rates. The effect is not huge, but it was measurable in this natural experiment. A thousand dollars reduced the probability of a child having obesity by as much as 4.5 percentage points.

So to the extent that the White House nutrition conference kept its focus on inequity in nutrition and thus in health, we find value. Nope, they did not really offer much substance on dealing with obesity. But as long as hunger and poverty keep generating disparities in nutrition and health, obesity will continue to be a problem.

Was it just a political show? We hope not. A child facing poverty and hunger is not a political issue. It’s a concern for all of us – red, blue, or purple.

Click here for Nestle’s summary of the White House conference, here for Cooper’s essay on hunger and poverty, and here for more on the Watson analysis.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Speaks at the White Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health; photograph by USDA / Flickr

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September 30, 2022

2 Responses to “Finding Value in the White House Nutrition Show”

  1. September 30, 2022 at 10:31 am, Allen Browne said:



    Or as my wife, Nancy, just said “Sometimes your cause is not the most important cause”

    Have a good day.


  2. September 30, 2022 at 4:37 pm, Mary-Jo said:

    To me, it’s amazing that hunger, inequity in access to health-promoting foods has been given such a high-profile forum. I hope it results in actions by the food industry, at every level — growers, manufacturers, distributors, wholesale, retail, food markets, restaurants, banks — to systemically streamline and optimize access and costs so that there’s more wholesome food available for all people, regardless of SES, and much less overly processed ‘food-like’ items which are high in calories, sat fats, sugars, of poor nutritional value, being bought (even donated!) and consumed. The knock-on effect may help decrease malnutrition associated with obesity.