The last White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health took place more than 50 years ago. The 1969 Conference was convened by President Richard Nixon to address hunger and malnutrition – the pressing food-related health challenges of that time. The Conference was successful in ushering in a wave of major reforms to U.S. nutrition policies and programs, including major expansions to the National School Lunch Program and the Food Stamp Program (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), creation of the School Breakfast Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and major improvements to nutrition labeling. Many experts believe that these policies have significantly reduced hunger and malnutrition in the U.S.
As the second White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health gets underway, our nation faces very different diet-related health challenges. While food insecurity still impacts one in 10 Americans, four in 10 U.S. adults have obesity and six in 10 have one or more chronic conditions, such as cancer. Less than half of adults get enough physical activity. And the average diet score on the Healthy Eating Index, a measure of adherence to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is a failing 58 out of 100. The data among children is equally concerning, with two in 10 children ages 2-19 having obesity, and less than one in four children ages 6-17 getting the recommended one hour of physical activity per day.
Research from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund’s (WCRF) Continuous Update Project and Third Expert Report have found that – after not smoking – poor diet, physical inactivity, and excess weight are the leading modifiable cancer risk factors. In fact, having overweight or obesity increases the risk for at least 12 types of cancer, being inactive increases the risk for at least three cancer types, and poor diet, such as eating too few fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains and too much red and processed meat, increases the risk for at least four cancer types. Drinking alcohol – even amounts of less than one or two drinks per day – also increases the risk for at least six cancer types.
For the last four years, AICR has been engaged in efforts to inform federal policy to make it easier for people to eat a healthy diet and be physically active. AICR’s policy priorities include:
- Nutrition labels that promote informed choices
- Alcohol labels that educate about cancer risk
- Federal dietary guidelines that are aligned with cancer prevention research
- Federal guidelines for physical activity programs and policies that make it easier to follow AICR’s Physical Activity Recommendation
- Increasing federal funding for cancer research, with an emphasis on prevention and healthy lifestyles
- Access to diet, physical activity and weight loss interventions for people with cancer and cancer survivors
The 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health provides an opportunity for renewed attention to the need for good nutrition, physical activity, and a healthy weight for a healthy and productive nation. At the Conference, taking place on September 28, 2022, President Joe Biden, Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, Secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, and other public and private sector leaders will provide remarks about the national strategy and priorities for implementation.
In conjunction with the Conference, the White House has released its national strategy, providing a roadmap for ending hunger and increasing healthy eating and physical activity by 2030 so that fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases. The national strategy outlines federal government actions, and calls on Congress, state and local governments, and the private and nonprofit sectors to advance policies and programs that improve hunger, nutrition, and health. The five pillars of the national strategy are:
- Improving food access and affordability;
- Integrating nutrition and health;
- Empowering all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices;
- Supporting physical activity for all;
- Enhancing nutrition and food security research.
To inform the national strategy, AICR participated in several listening sessions to share our priorities and recommendations with federal leaders. AICR also collaborated with other leading organizations and thought leaders on broader efforts to inform the strategy, including participating in a convening that contributed to the largest multi-stakeholder initiative to inform the Conference.
The national strategy includes several of AICR’s priorities. For example:
- The strategy notes: “The Biden-Harris Administration supports efforts to expand evidence-based nutrition and obesity counseling benefits to Medicare beneficiaries with additional conditions.” Currently, Medicare only covers medical nutrition therapy – a type of nutrition counseling provided by a registered dietitian – for people with diabetes and kidney disease, limiting access for the 12 million cancer survivors who are over age 65. AICR supports this component of the strategy and has advocated for passage of the Medical Nutrition Therapy Act, which would require Medicare to provide coverage for medical nutrition therapy for people with a broad range of diet-related conditions, including cancer.
- The strategy includes increased investment in nutrition research and creative new approaches to advance research on the prevention and treatment of diet-related diseases. AICR advocates for increased federal funding for research on cancer and healthy lifestyles, particularly at the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health.
- The strategy explains that the Biden-Harris Administration supports regular updates to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which are the federal government’s official policy on the connection between diet and physical activity and good health. In addition, the strategy notes that the Administration “will work with Congress to provide adequate funding for HHS to regularly update these guidelines, in partnership with USDA, and lead a national education campaign to boost awareness of healthy eating recommendations and support all Americans in making healthy choices.” AICR supports the regular updates to these important dietary and physical activity guidelines and ensuring that they reflect the latest evidence on the connection between diet, physical activity, and cancer prevention and survivorship.
While the strategy represents an important step forward in advancing impactful nutrition policies, not included in the strategy is any mention of policies to address intake of alcoholic beverages, a component of dietary patterns for the majority of U.S. adults and a risk factor for at least six cancer types. AICR advocates for improvements to alcoholic beverage labels to educate the public about the connection between alcohol and cancer risk. In addition, the strategy omits recommendations related to physical activity, screening, prescription and referral through healthcare systems or access to physical activity interventions for healthcare survivors, important strategies for increasing physical activity to reduce cancer risk and improve a range of outcomes for cancer survivors.
AICR looks forward to collaborating with the White House and other stakeholders to achieve the Conference’s goal to “increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030, so that fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases.” Indeed, achieving this ambitious agenda will take dedicated action across sectors.