In late September, the White House hosted a generation-defining food conference aimed at ending hunger domestically by 2030, promoting a healthy lifestyle, and tackling diet-related diseases. This event, the first of its kind since 1969, was marked by the launch of President Biden’s wide-ranging strategy for achieving the aforementioned aims, with expanded nutrition assistance programs, front-of-package (FOP) food labeling, and physical activity drives prominent among the proposals.
While the conference and its accompanying policies constitute, in many ways, encouraging steps in the right direction, the White House should ensure that it learns from the experiences of other countries when working out the finer points of its approach. Europe should prove to be an especially happy hunting ground for inspiration, with plenty of best practices to follow and pitfalls to avoid as Biden seeks to achieve what President Nixon failed to do over half a century ago.
Putting root causes in the crosshairs
Biden’s ambitious announcements come in the wake of a Department of Agriculture report, which found that as many as 10% of U.S. households suffered from food insecurity in 2021, with over a quarter of a million families going hungry and skipping meals. While the president is hitting many of the right notes on food poverty and hunger, his approach must not rely solely on food stamps, school meals, and other sticky tape solutions at the expense of tackling the root causes of hunger, namely poverty and inequality. One respected UN expert has already highlighted the conference’s failure to recognize a universal “right to food” for all U.S. citizens as one of its major shortcomings.
The UK provides a compelling case study on this subject, where years of government-induced austerity have taken their toll on the most impoverished and vulnerable members of society. According to a 2019 Human Rights Watch report – which condemned the Conservative Party’s track record as “cruel and harmful” – public welfare spending fell by a stunning 44% between 2010 and 2018, triggering a significant rise in hunger and foodbank reliance.
However, promising recommendations have emerged from the government-commissioned UK National Food Strategy that can remedy the situation, particularly expanding free school meals eligibility, extending food subsidy support for young families, and launching a project to help low-income communities eat healthy foods. The extensive analysis and guidance from this independent review will be of great use to both Westminster and Washington.
Informative, not instructive FOP
Meanwhile, Biden’s focus on equipping the public with the knowledge and tools to make healthier dietary choices is also commendable, particularly given that one in ten Americans have diabetes. However, his administration must ensure that any FOP legislation does not fall afoul of the same imbroglio currently engulfing the EU’s attempts to enforce a bloc-wide harmonized system.
While France’s Nutri-Score initially looked to be in pole position to get the nod from Brussels, the EU’s deputy director general for food sustainability, Claire Bury, seemingly ruled out such an outcome at last month’s AgriFood summit in an abrupt U-turn that followed substantial pushback from politicians and scientists across Europe. While many of its opponents are not in principle opposed to a bloc-wide FOP system, they have repeatedly highlighted Nutri-Score’s specific shortcomings, particularly highlighting how the arbitrary nature of its algorithm results in unfairly harsh scores for certain Mediterranean diet staples, such as olive oil, cheese, and cured meats.
What’s more, Nutri-Score’s algorithm can be misleading to consumers and easily manipulated by food manufacturers. Its scientifically flawed nature was further laid bare at a conference hosted by the European thinktank Competere, where experts such as Dr. Ramon Estruch and Dr. Francesco Visioli criticized Nutri-Score’s overly simplistic designation of foods as “positive and negative,” as well as its failure to evaluate broader nutritional components beyond salt, sugar, and fat that contribute to healthy, well-rounded diets. To develop an effective FOP label with broad support, the U.S. government should thus eschew the prescriptive and absolutist approach characterized by systems such as Nutri-Score in favour of a balanced, informative system.
Breaking down barriers to physical activity
Another area of concern rightfully being addressed in Washington’s plans is physical activity. Over one-third (35%) of people in 19 states and two territories are currently obese – double the 2018 figure. Obesity represents a severe and growing challenge in the EU as well, with nearly half of its citizens reporting a total lack of sport or exercise participation in 2017. And recent research has found that this physical inactivity and associated health complications are particularly pronounced among people from socioeconomically disadvantaged groups.
Positive lessons can be learned from the work undertaken by the Nordic Council of Ministers, a pioneer of targeting vulnerable groups in physical activity initiatives, which has identified urban planning – particularly in relation to playgrounds, schools, and transportation – as a key driver of inclusive access to physical activity opportunities. Elsewhere, Denmark has also achieved encouraging results by transforming public spaces to foster sporting participation, while Croatia’s focus on facilitating access for disabled or socially excluded persons has supported over 3,000 people, including 790 with disabilities.
The U.S. would do well to recognize what the EU has spent so much time and effort in discovering: that beyond public health, promoting inclusive participation in sport and exercise achieves crucial social and community cohesion benefits.
Looking across the pond
There are many things to admire about President Biden’s food conference and strategy, particularly its encouraging focus on food insecurity, nutritional education, and physical activity. But expectations are sky-high. If the Biden administration is to have any chance of completing Nixon’s hunger eradication crusade, it will need to heed the lessons learned by other countries.
As an industrialized global power with many similar demographic features and public health challenges, Europe is ideally suited to inform the new U.S. food agenda. With a solid foundation now in place, all that remains is for the White House to keep its stride sure and true by following the examples and swerving the errors made by its counterparts across the pond.
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