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The Food Pantries for The Capital District watching White House nutrition summit closely

Cans of food at a food shelf in this WAMC file photo
Pat Bradley
Cans of food at a food shelf in this WAMC file photo

The White House is convening a conference on hunger, nutrition and health — the first such gathering since 1969. It’s part of President Joe Biden’s goal to end hunger and increase healthy eating by 2030, to improve overall national health. The administration plans to release a national strategy to tackle the issue. Along with the White House conference, satellite events are being held nationwide including a watch party in Albany hosted by The Food Pantries for The Capital District. Natasha Pernicka is Executive Director.

As we look at the issue of hunger in America, in the Capital Region, can you quantify for us what the scope of the problem is when we talk about hunger?

Sure, when we're looking at hunger, we're really talking about food and nutrition insecurity. So, here in America, what that means is people not having access to or resources for enough nutritious food for a healthy and active life. Right here in the Capital District of New York, unlike across the nation, about 1 in 10 people in our community struggle with food insecurity. What does that look like from a food pantry perspective? Food pantries for the Capitol District is a coalition of more than 70 organizations here in the Capital Region. We serve between 50,000 and 65,000 people every year through our food pantry programs.

In terms of this conference, what are you hoping comes out of it?

That is a great question, and we're so excited today to be hearing about the different strategies. This is my bottom line, when people ask me, 'Natasha, how can we end hunger?' Number one, we need to make sure that federal policies, programs and investments are in line, in support of what the conference has laid out as their pillars. This is so critical because all of the charity in the world cannot accomplish what our federal policies, programs and investments can. What this means is fully investing in federal nutrition assistance programs, including SNAP and WIC, increasing access to those programs, as well as universal free breakfast and lunch. We also need to really take a look at the food manufacturing industry. One of the challenges that we have had over the decades is that lobbying is something that helps define, well, it defines a lot of our policies here in the U.S. Unfortunately, the food manufacturing industry is a major voice when it comes to defining federal policy. This today is an opportunity for people who care about a Hunger Free America having their voice heard, and the federal government really responding in a way that supports policy and alignment with nutrition and health, as opposed to cheap, fast calories, which has really put us in the position where we're at today with so many people in America struggling with chronic health conditions that could be prevented simply by having regular access to nutritious food.

Well, a lot of the programs and actions you just mentioned were temporarily put into place during the COVID-19 pandemic, including expanded free availability for meals at school. Are you seeing setbacks now that those programs have been curtailed in this part of the COVID 19 pandemic?

Yeah, we are seeing setbacks because we know federal interventions work. A perfect example of this is that before the pandemic, our food pantry coalition served about 65,000 people a year here in the Capital Region. During COVID and during the pandemic while we were struggling immensely with making sure food access was available to those in need. We saw a significant decrease in people seeking assistance from food pantries. Why? Because child tax credits were enacted. There was free universal breakfast and lunch in schools. A lot of other federal assistance programs were kicked up a notch. Now in 2022, with inflation, a lot of federal assistance programs ending, we're starting to see a surge again in people seeking food from food pantries. In fact, 80% of the food pantries in our coalition are now seeing increases again, in people needing food pantry services. It is not okay in our country to be providing nutrition services through charity. We have enough resources in our country, for our government to step in and make sure that people have access to healthy food on a consistent basis.

So, it sounds like what you're hoping comes out of this conference and announcements from the Biden administration really comes down to new investments and to new spending commitments, right?

I think I would frame it more in aligning current federal as well. Yes, of course, we need to invest at a higher level in some of the programs that already work. But I would like to read a quote from Dr. Mark Hymen’s book. It's called, “Food: What the Heck Should I Cook?” And I think this really succinctly explains some of the challenges that I think the federal government needs to address first and foremost. This is from Dr. Mark Hyman’s book, “Food is a deeply personal choice, but it is also profoundly political. Our current federal food policies encourage big food to put private profit over public health. Despite the food system being the biggest national and global industry, over 1 trillion in the US and 18 trillion a year globally, we have no integrated, coordinated set of food policies. In fact, we have many agencies governing our food system and their goals, and they're often at odds with each other.” So, I want to give you this example from his book, “The government tells us to eat 5-9 servings of fruit and veggies a day. Fruits and vegetables are known as specialty crops, and they receive just 1% Of the more than 25 billion, the United States Department of Agriculture spends to support agriculture. The other 99% of the USDA current funding goes to support commodities, so that corn, wheat, soy and so on. Those government subsidies supported crops are turned into processed high sugar, high glycemic, toxic and industrial foods that have been proven to increase chronic disease and death, which our dietary guidelines tell us to avoid. That's just one small example. But when you take it even further, talking about we spend 85 billion through our food stamp program, which is SNAP, most of which goes to pay for processed food, including over 30 billion servings of soda every year. Then we have Medicaid and Medicare pick up the tab for chronic diseases that are misaligned government policies create. Currently, obesity and type 2 diabetes account for 3.4 trillion a year in direct and indirect medical costs for almost 20% of our entire economy. So, from that example from Dr. hymens book, we can see this big challenge of really aligning the federal policies and programs will have a tremendous impact, more than all of us coming together through charity, trying to end hunger on our side of things.

Obviously, ending hunger and improving American health outcomes through you know, better eating and more activity and so on is a very heavy lift. How optimistic are you about the outcomes of this particular conference?

I'm optimistic that it's giving people like me and other people who really care about this topic. I mean, we're coming together in New York's capital with feeding New York State Hunger Solutions, Hunger Action Network, and the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. We're coming together because we all believe in this. And so, I feel like it gives us a chance to kind of rally people who care people who understand the system, so that we can keep pushing on the federal government. Can we fight against lobbyists from the food manufacturing industry? I don't know. I mean, that's where our political system is really flawed and I don't know if we have the strength without having significant money to throw towards politicians. And I'm just speaking, frankly, because I've been in the nonprofit sector for over two decades. And it all comes down to what the federal government is willing to do. If there's a will there's a way but we need the federal government to take ownership of this, because we've all been working hard for decades and the biggest impact comes from the federal government taking ownership of this.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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