Comment: Free school lunches, yes, but how else to end hunger

A White House conference is considering steps, but control of Congress may determine what’s adopted.

By Clare Brock / Special To The Washington Post

The White House is holding a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health this week, the first in more than 50 years. Biden announced the conference in May, giving the administration just three months to plan the event. Hopes are high, despite the short notice. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., one of the leading organizers, announced that the conference aims to end hunger in America by 2030.

President Richard M. Nixon hosted the last White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health, in 1969. The final report from that event contained more than 1,800 recommendations and helped launch pivotal federal programs, including major expansions of the Food Stamp program and the National School Lunch Program, and authorization of the Supplemental Feeding Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC).

Food and nutrition questions are high on the congressional agenda

Can we expect a similar outcome from this year’s conference? This historic event will occur while members of Congress are ramping up for the 2023 Farm Bill. Every five years, this legislation lays out the federal government’s primary agriculture, conservation and food policy priorities. As the White House held listening sessions about the conference with a variety of stakeholders, representatives and staff have been holding similar sessions nationwide in preparation for drafting the legislation.

Congressional listening sessions are separate from the White House sessions, and more oriented around constituency concerns and agricultural challenges. For instance, Sen. Michael F. Bennet, D-Colo., and staff are holding sessions in Colorado, which is facing a record drought. This means that lawmakers may not be hearing from the same groups or addressing the same issues as the White House; though the Farm Bill is likely to include suggestions coming out of the conference.

Some concerns will no doubt be areas of overlap for both the White House and members of Congress. U.S. crop yields are lower than usual this year, due to drought and extreme weather. And U.S. consumers are feeling economic pain, with inflation driving grocery prices up in recent months.

An added stress for low-income and middle-class Americans is the end of universal free school lunches. The federal program has recently reverted back to the previous tiered program structure of full price, reduced price, and free lunches. Lawmakers claimed that the nationwide universal free lunch program was intended to be a short-term response to the coronavirus pandemic, but research suggests that this approach has important impacts on students, increasing test scores by as much as 11 percentage points, a potentially important consideration in the face of significant post-pandemic learning loss reports.

Together, extreme weather, inflation and the abrupt reduction the school lunch program set a broader environment of economic scarcity for the conference and for lawmakers crafting the 2023 Farm Bill.

Anti-hunger groups and food companies are weighing in

One guaranteed constant between the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health and the process of crafting the 2023 Farm Bill will be the presence of advocacy groups (also known as lobbyists). Advocacy groups — anti-hunger groups and various trade associations, in particular — have been submitting comments to the White House in advance of the conference. But the presence of interest groups does not mean they will determine the event outcomes.

There is not much evidence that money buys policy, according to research. Large interest group mobilization efforts tend to generate counter-mobilization, and many interest groups and stakeholders are already involved in this event.

Fissures between groups can mean no one gets what they want, since the status quo is easier to maintain. Sometimes long-standing conflicts between groups can hinder progress.

Anti-hunger groups have historically made “unholy alliances” with “big food.” Those decisions often rubbed nutrition advocates the wrong way; and, at times, prevented these groups from engaging in unified advocacy. And we may expect this to be the case at the White House conference, where nutrition advocates are reportedly concerned that the conference will do little to address the epidemic of diet-related diseases.

Free school lunches may be one program everyone agrees on

Unified advocacy on free school lunches could have a widespread impact. My research on interest groups suggests they matter most when they either swim with the tide or support the status quo, and when they create coalitions of unlikely bedfellows. If they avoid getting caught up in partisan battles, these groups can provide useful information to lawmakers.

The Biden administration has indicated it will recommend healthy free lunches for all. But even with the support of broad interest group coalitions, making progress on actual food and nutrition outcomes could still be an uphill battle. Many of the next steps will require congressional action, and final conference recommendations will come just before midterm elections.

If Democrats retain the House and solidify their hold on the Senate, we could see significant movement on nutrition-related recommendations. That’s because many consider Biden an “above average” lawmaker and bipartisan coalition builder, and bipartisanship remains a necessary element of lawmaking, especially in a polarized era.

However, if Republicans win the House or the Senate, we may see Biden’s agenda come to a screeching halt, as Republicans have been obstructionist when it comes to Democratic agendas.

Policy recommendations aren’t “now or never” opportunities for change

Legislating is a long game. In the short term, interest groups and motivated companies can use the recommendations as a source of positive press if they make voluntary changes, and the administration is already encouraging stakeholders to make those types of commitments.

Lobbyists, activists and other stakeholders all seek to influence policy, but can also simultaneously pursue change in other venues; including at the state level, where they are already advocating for universal free lunches. State and local-level advocacy may not be as satisfyingly big-picture as congressional action, but it can be effective. Research shows that health advocates can influence public support for public health measures through the right kind of messaging. Small steps can ultimately lead to big gains.

Clare Brock, @clare_brock, is an assistant professor in political science at Texas Woman’s University and the author of “Farmed Out: Agricultural Lobbying in a Polarized Congress” (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). For other analysis and commentary from The Monkey Cage, an independent blog anchored by political scientists from universities around the world, see www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage

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