Biden hunger conference draws Tennessee advocates
Staff members for Tennessee nutrition advocacy groups who attended the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health hope the event will galvanize the movement to end hunger for families, seniors and other low-income populations after the pandemic.
On Wednesday, the Biden Administration hosted the conference and invited policy makers and nutrition advocates from across the nation to discuss a coordinated and accelerated strategy in ending hunger, improving access to nutrition and physical activity and closing the disparities that prevent vulnerable groups from accessing government programs.
Attendees were invited to share their testimonials on how programs have benefited people eligible for food programs and their collaboration with federal officials and national organizations in nutrition advocacy. Signe Anderson, the director of nutrition advocacyfor the Tennessee Justice Center, addressed some of the barriers faced by low-income communities and how pandemic-related benefits greatly assisted in providing access to food. Anderson was joined by Memphis Tilth, an organization dedicated to sustainable food systems for local communities.
“We worked to elevate some voices in Tennessee who have lived experiences. We actually worked with one of our partners in (Memphis Tilth) who has participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program to lift up what that experience was like,” said Anderson. “And that became part of what helped to inform the strategy coming out of this conference.”
Anderson said one benefit of the COVID pandemic was that free and accessible meals became a staple in keeping vulnerable populations fed.
When the pandemic caused schools to shut down or transition to remote learning, families and children who relied on school meals were able to access Pandemic-EBT, an emergency program that provided funds to replace the lost meals.
“We heard from families during the P-EBT period that they were finally able to buy their kids fresh fruit and vegetables because they had money they could spend on food,” said Anderson. “Whereas if you don’t, your number one priority is making sure you feed your family as cheap as you can so you can afford the other necessities of life.”
State and federal officials also waived many of the requirements for receiving P-EBT and other food programs, such as SNAP, a separate food program for residents living on or under the poverty line. To qualify for SNAP, applicants are typically required to find work unless granted exemptions, but the requirements were waived during the pandemic.
As a result, these and other programs, such as the Child Tax Credit, lessened the effects of the pandemic-related food insecurity for thousands of families, seniors and other vulnerable populations.
But many of these programs are set to end following the pandemic. While the Child Tax Credit program will cut payments in 2022, the P-EBT is expected to stop following the 2022-2023 school year.
“We’re hopeful that some of those strategies from the pandemic will live on,” said Anderson.
Anderson and other attendees emphasized the positive impacts on Tennesseans due to improvements to SNAP, school meals and WIC. Some of the issues that were raised at the conference were boosting SNAP benefits, providing free school meals and improving access points for SNAP customers, such as access to on-line grocery and allowing families to use their benefits to purchase hot meals. Currently families are only allowed to shop for processed and packaged food.
Anderson also hopes state and federal officials reevaluate current barriers for seniors, convicted felons and the homeless. While SNAP applicants were able to apply online or through mail, seniors are not as easily able to access the internet or mailing services, and phone services are currently complicated procedures with long wait times. For ex-felons, certain drug charges prevent them from receiving SNAP after prison without documentation on their recovery.
“Anyone will argue that taking away food will not help them stay out of prison,” She said.
And SNAP applicants were also previously required to work, and while exemptions were made for certain groups, being homeless did not qualify as an exemption.
“If someone is homeless, how do you maintain work?” she said.
The Biden Administration plans to end hunger by 2030, which is a bold goal, said Anderson.
“We hope the energy that comes from out of this will actually lead to some significant change,” she added.
Federal officials last hosted the conference in 1969, an event that spurred the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and changes to how the U.S. labeled foods. T
The Biden Administration plans to end hunger by 2030 by improving food access and affordability, integrating nutrition and health through Medicare and Medicaid; encouraging consumers to make healthy choices, such as expanding incentives for health foods in food programs or developing label schemes for food packages; supporting physical activity by expanding federal programs and investing in connecting people to the outdoors; and enhancing nutrition and food security research.