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White House conference will address the nation's food insecurity

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's an image from the pandemic that President Biden talks about a lot, an image that shows just how quickly people can lose their food security.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Remember those long lines of cars stretching miles back, waiting for just a box of food to be put back in their trunk? It wasn't just poor folk. It was working-class folks. It was middle-class folks - a lot of pretty nice cars in those lines.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And today, President Biden is going to talk about his plans to try to help tackle hunger. The White House is hosting a major conference on the issue, the first of its kind since 1969.

MARTIN: NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo joins us now with more. Good morning, Ximena.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So this is the first big hunger conference in this country in 50 years. The last one was when President Nixon was in the White House. Why is this happening now?

BUSTILLO: Yeah, no, great question. That conference was a really big deal. It led to the creation of food stamps and child nutrition programs that are still in place today. But hunger is still a huge problem - 1 in 10 Americans face problems getting enough to eat, according to the Agriculture Department, and Black and Latino households face higher rates of food insecurity than white households. Additionally, the pandemic specifically renewed the sense of urgency to talk about food policy - the long lines at food banks, the reliance students have on school lunches, and people with diet-related diseases like diabetes have faced more risks with COVID. It also showed the benefit of government assistance. Because of programs like stimulus checks and the child tax credit, we didn't see a huge jump in hunger levels during the pandemic.

MARTIN: So President Biden is pledging to try to end hunger in America in eight years, which is an audacious goal, I guess you could say. How is he going to do that?

BUSTILLO: He wants to deal with some of the root causes, like not having enough money for food. So, for example, he wants to revive the child tax credit and raise the minimum wage. But also he wants to make it easier for more people to get food stamps, like people who were formerly incarcerated and college students, who right now don't qualify. The White House came out yesterday with a 40-page plan of ideas. I talked to Michael Wilson about it. He's a director of a nonprofit called Maryland Hunger Solutions.

MICHAEL WILSON: In some ways, I'm relieved at some of the priorities that they've put out 'cause I think that those of us who work in the anti-hunger space know that the root causes which cause people to have issues with hunger and food insecurity really, really need to be addressed. It's not as simple as have a salad.

BUSTILLO: Now, making these ideas reality won't be easy. It will take action by Congress. And Republicans do not support expanding food stamps and school meals, so there's going to be a lot of debate as lawmakers put the farm bill together next year.

MARTIN: So it's one thing to come out with a 40-page plan and to talk about this issue, especially ahead of a midterm election. But is there anything concrete the administration can do right now?

BUSTILLO: Yeah, there are a couple of things that they want to do that they can just do without Congress, including changes to regulations for nutrition labels. They'd like to start putting simpler labels on the front of packages instead of the complicated ones on the back. And they're also urging the private sector to act. They say they've already lined up $8 billion worth of promises, and they'll be talking about those today, too.

MARTIN: NPR's Ximena Bustillo, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

BUSTILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.