WhyHunger Testimony Submitted for the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition & Health


WhyHunger Testimony

Submitted for the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition & Health July 14, 2022



Hunger is solvable. Solutions to hunger and adequate nutrition already exist across the U.S. They are multi-faceted and interwoven and can be found in the ways communities most impacted by hunger, poverty, and oppression are nourishing themselves and each other. As a country, we struggle to solve the ongoing hunger crisis because of a lack of political will to address and dismantle centuries’ old policies and ideologies that privatize, commodify and consolidate food systems to industry and reinforce a mentality of scarcity. If we can instead make a bold, comprehensive pivot to prioritize the rights, health and well-being of people – the laborers, marginalized groups, peasants, fisherfolk and those who work the land and grow the food – as well as our natural systems, we can end hunger and ensure everyone’s basic human right to nutritious food.

Founded in 1975, WhyHunger believes a world without hunger is possible. WhyHunger provides critical resources to support grassroots movements and fuel community solutions to hunger that are rooted in social, environmental, racial and economic justice. Together, we are working to end hunger and advance the human right to nutritious food in the U.S. and around the world. We do this in a way that is deeply relational and accompanies our partners in this work to meet our shared goals.

WhyHunger’s co-founder Harry Chapin was an instrumental part of the first ever Presidential Commission on World Hunger during President Carter’s Administration. With 47 years of history and deep relationships with hundreds of grassroots and BIPOC-led organizations, emergency food providers and global social movements, we consistently uplift the vision and leadership of those most invested in solving the hunger crisis.

Following their lead, we continue to press for transformational policy and programs to end hunger and promote nutrition and health, grounded in addressing the intersectional root causes of food insecurity and ensuring that access to healthy and nutritious food is a basic human right for all. To do this, we must ensure people with lived experience of hunger and BIPOC-led and grassroots organizations are not just at the table but setting the strategy.

This is not a time for program tweaks, incremental gains or short-term improvements. We need a transformative approach that goes further than any Administration has been willing to go. We need to systematically and inclusively eradicate this entrenched yet solvable social problem.

I.    What are the systemic issues of hunger and nutrition?

Root Causes to be addressed
For several decades the U.S. government has been abdicating its role to fully ensure the right to food for its citizens, increasingly foisting this role onto the private charitable food sector. As a result, widespread food insecurity, systemic racism and wealth inequality has flourished. The impact of the COVID-19 crisis has brought staggering rates of food insecurity across the U.S. and renewed public attention to the hunger crisis. Hunger is not a new problem in America. COVID- 19 has only exacerbated the long-standing social injustices, from racism to stagnant wages, at the root of hunger. In this moment of unprecedented need and heightened awareness, this historic White House Conference has the potential to shift our collective national response to food insecurity, dramatically reduce hunger and build a just food system for us all.

Even before the pandemic, 35 million Americans were struggling to get enough food on the table, while four out of five workers lived paycheck to paycheck. The private charitable emergency feeding system in the U.S.—the largest and most sophisticated in the world—has historically never been able to meet the demand or make a real dent in the rate of food insecurity, which has hovered between 11 and 12% of the population over the past 30 years. We have proven time and again that we cannot food bank our way out of hunger. Charitable food distribution is not the answer. In fact, food is not even the problem.

The root causes of the hunger problem in America have always been there. And, while the Biden-Harris Administration has not yet directly connected them to food insecurity, they have put these root causes at the center of their policy agenda. These are not distinct roots; rather they are inextricably intertwined at the base of social injustice. Understanding these root causes and centering them in this historic moment offers an incredible opportunity to work toward holistic solutions, as Chairman McGovern explained “what I have learned over the years is it’s not just one program or one aspect of the issue. We need to connect the dots. There’s intersectionality here between a number of issues.”

  • Economic injustice: People are food insecure because they cannot afford to buy food and they have been dispossessed of land and sustainable natural resources with which to grow food. Low wages and underemployment, lack of benefits such as paid sick leave and healthcare benefits, force more than 38 million Americans to regularly make a choice between skipping meals and paying for prescription medicine; turning on the heat or purchasing fresh and unprocessed foods. While American farming has certainly expanded and increased its value since 1920 (it’s currently worth $100 billion), there were almost three times as many farms 100 years ago than there are today (down from 6.5 million farms to two million in 2020). In that same time span, the number of Black farmers fell from one million to 45,000.
  • Racial injustice: Structural racism in our food system systematically denies people of color access to fresh, nutritious food, while profiting from the exploitation of Black and Brown workers. The legacy of racial discrimination and oppression in the form of the capture and enslavement of Africans to build the wealth of this nation and the brutal displacement of Indigenous Peoples from the land and their food ways still reverberates in racist institutions, systems and policies today. The historical targeting of poor, Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples through lending institutions, discriminatory policies, and systemic racism has led to further debt, a lack of generational wealth and limited opportunities for community control over food systems. Because of this injustice, Black and Brown communities in the U.S. suffer disproportionately from food insecurity, poor health and low wages.
  • Environmental injustice: U.S. agriculture suffers from excessive levels of concentration, meaning just a handful of corporations control nearly all of our food production, processing, and distribution. Further, this highly industrialized agricultural system contributes significantly to climate change. U.S. policies push farmers to maintain the status quo of industrial agriculture, which accounts for 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions and uses 70% of the planet’s freshwater. Meanwhile, the broadest disruption caused by climate change will likely be in food systems, including more frequent heat waves, heavier precipitation in some regions, and more severe droughts in others — and will have significant implications for crop and meat production. Global warming has the potential to seriously disrupt our food supply, drive costs upward, and affect everything from coffee to cattle, from staple food crops to the garden in your backyard. In the U.S. we grow more non-food crops than food crops, resulting in the need to import more than half of all the fruits we consume. In addition, we must acknowledge the role industrial pollution, contamination and overdevelopment have on not only our climate, but our ability to collectively produce nutritious food. According to the UN’s climate panel, people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change. In other words, those who are already food insecure.
  • Health injustice: Economic, racial and environmental injustice lead to poor health outcomes. Without access to land, community control over foodways, and a right to choose healthy, nutritious, affordable food, people are left with a choice between poor quality food or extremely high prices. In a system that prioritizes industry, profit and development, those who are trying to survive from the land are faced with polluted ecosystems and toxic water. The inability to source healthy, organic natural foods is an equity issue that leads to several public health concerns, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity and shortened lifespans. Further, Black and Latinx households continue to be disproportionately affected by food insecurity, at rates of 21.7% and 17.2% respectively. The negative impacts are far-reaching; people experiencing hunger are 3 times more likely to suffer from poor health and diet-related illness, and children experiencing food insecurity have on average smaller academic gains and higher incidences of anxiety, depression, and chronic illness. The food we eat impacts all aspects of our lives and our health, and because of this, universal access to nutritious food is crucial. Diet related diseases, that can be prevented through adequate access to healthy foods, cost the federal government trillions of dollars in health care.

II.    What are the solutions for a healthy and hunger-free world? Calls to action from the frontline/grassroots

Frontline, grassroots and BIPOC-led movements across the U.S. have already created and demonstrated solutions and frameworks to build a healthy, just and hunger-free world. It is imperative to apply these principles into the process of developing a “roadmap to end hunger by 2030” and by doing so, the Administration can pave the way for truly transformative and long-lasting solutions that will be both led by and in support to those most impacted by hunger, poverty, and injustice.

Just Transition is a concept and framework that encompasses a range of concerns over climate change-related responses, social justice, and economic equity. Defined by the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) as a “vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy,” the principles and practices of a just transition offer a pathway to build a food system and economic structure centered on nourishing our people and our planet.

CJA explains:

“After centuries of global plunder, the profit-driven industrial economy rooted in patriarchy and white supremacy is severely undermining the life support systems of the planet. Transition is inevitable. Justice is not. We must build a visionary economy that is very different than the one we now are in. This requires stopping the bad while at the same time building the new. We must change the rules to redistribute resources and power to local communities. Just Transition initiatives are shifting from dirty energy to energy democracy, from funding highways to expanding public transit, from incinerators and landfills to zero waste, from industrial food systems to food sovereignty, from gentrification to community land rights, from military violence to peaceful resolution, and from rampant destructive development to ecosystem restoration. Core to a Just Transition is deep democracy in which workers and communities have control over the decisions that affect their daily lives.”

The Just Transition Initiative a collaborative effort by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Climate Investment Funds, lays out an inclusive process for systems change with broad impact that requires:

  • Social Inclusion: recognizes, includes, and empowers a diverse range of stakeholders throughout transition processes.
  • Distributional Impacts: considers a broad range of impacts across sectors and stakeholders.
  • Intention: seeks transformation through the overhaul of systems incompatible with sustainable development and social equity.

Furthermore, The Indigenous Environmental Network uplifts Indigenous principles of a just transition, such as:

A Just Transition recognizes our Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and assertion of self- determination to control and manage our ancestral lands, waters, and territories and all natural resources inclusive of our own laws, values, customs and traditions. Our lands and territories are at the core of our existence – we are the land, and the land is us; we have a distinct spiritual and material relationship with our lands, waters and atmosphere-sky and territories and they are linked to our survival.

Solidarity EconomyAccording to the New Economy Coalition, the solidarity economy is:

A global movement to build a just and sustainable economy where we prioritize people and the planet over endless profit and growth. Growing out of social movements in Latin America and the Global South, the solidarity economy provides real alternatives to capitalism, where communities govern themselves through participatory democracy, cooperative and public ownership, and a culture of solidarity and respect for the earth.

They point to models addressing food, nutrition and health such as Community Land Trusts, Community Gardens, Food and Farm Co-ops, Community Fridges, Regenerative Agriculture, Agroecology, Food Sovereignty as solutions within the Solidarity Economy Framework.

Agroecology & Food Sovereignty

The principles of Agroecology and Food Sovereignty are foundational to creating a just food system that nourishes people and planet and building a hunger free U.S.

Agroecology can be defined as a form of agriculture that marries modern science with Indigenous knowledge and the wisdom of those who work the land and waters. But agroecology is so much more than sustainable farming and fishing practices; it’s a way of life. A way for families and communities to build independence from the industrial food system, so they can determine for themselves what they eat, and a way to engage socially and politically to protect access to land and resources and advocate for policies that support sustainable production.

In short, agroecology is key to achieving Food Sovereignty, which is the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and equitable labor practices. Agroecology ensures the right of communities to define their own food and agriculture systems.

Across the U.S. there are powerful movements for Black Food Sovereignty and Indigenous Food Sovereignty that hold critical lessons to a liberated, hunger-free country. Black Food Sovereignty as explained by the National Black Food and Justice Alliance:

Sovereignty as the ultimate goal cannot be achieved without confronting the question of governance. We work to ensure that Black people have not only the right, but the ability to control our food, through means including but not limited to the means of production & distribution. Governance of food systems must be rooted in the right to healthy & culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound & sustainable methods, and the right to define our own food & agriculture systems. Even in naming our rights, we know we will not enjoy any rights which we will not assert through action. Shifting from an exclusively rights-based framework to a framework of governance & community power centers the needs of those working and consuming at all points of the food chain, over the demands of corporations & markets.

Indigenous Food Sovereignty, as explained by our partners at I-Collective: “Indigenous food sovereignty is critical because many health issues are tied to

colonialism and the exploitation of resources and people.” Indigenous peoples have long-established protocols as the original caretakers and stewards of the land in which the United States resides. These protocols are reinforced in tribal culture in tribal languages, ceremonial practices, and ways of being in the world. Indigenous foodways are incredibly sophisticated in such a way that food is cultivated at maximum productivity with health as a priority while nourishing the natural systems of which indigenous peoples (and all peoples) rely. It is critical to center indigenous foodways and policies that support landback, rematriation, and support systems that keep indigenous peoples and territories protected.

Right To FoodIt is time to recognize citizens, communities and the natural resources we depend on as rights holders and governments as duty bearers. The right to adequate food and nutrition is both a call to action and a global legal framework for coordinated reform in food and agriculture. As the pandemic reshapes public life around the globe, it also offers an opportunity to organize and protect everyone’s basic human right to food in the U.S.

The U.S. is one of only a few countries that has never ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which includes the right to food and adequate nutrition. Yet, communities, advocates, farmers, and institutions in states across the country are organizing to enshrine the right to food for their citizens. In 2021, the people of Maine voted to approve a constitutional amendment ‘Right to Produce, Harvest, and Consume Food Amendment.’ The amendment – the first of its kind in the nation – protects the ability for Maine residents to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being. Several other states are coordinating efforts, supported by WhyHunger, to seek legal protection for their citizens right to nutritious food across the U.S. There is a clear path to federal action on the Right to Food.

Transformation of Emergency Feeding System

Closing the Hunger Gap (CTHG), a network of organizations and individuals working to expand hunger relief efforts beyond food distribution towards strategies that promote social justice and address the root causes of hunger, is paving the way to transform the U.S. emergency feeding system. The members of CTHG who work at the frontlines of hunger relief acknowledge that food charity will never end hunger in the U.S. and call for institutions within the emergency food system, governments, and policymakers to shift their focus to addressing the root causes of hunger and poverty. Their Next Shift campaign uplifts economic justice as the next step toward ending the chronic need for food banks and calls for:

  • Thriving wages and safe and fair working conditions for all staff and workers in anti- hunger and hunger relief organizations,
  • Shifting leadership and decision-making power to center people impacted by racism, hunger, and economic exploitation,
  • Changing the narratives around true and false solutions to hunger and the climate crisis. The dominant narrative for solving hunger is about food charity and handouts. We need to change that narrative to focus on root causes and system level changes grounded in racial, social, and economic justice. We need to examine and change the narratives around the industrial food system, government’s role in subsidizing big agricultural and the role that plays as a significant contributor to the climate crisis.

III.    What is our direct appeal to the White House?

Grounded in WhyHunger’s deep relationship with grassroots movements across the U.S. and around the globe, our intersectional understanding of both the challenges and solutions surrounding hunger in the U.S. and decades of work within this sector, we are uplifting the following specific calls to action as you work to build a roadmap to end hunger by 2030:

  • Not just input, but strategic decision making by:
    • Communities most impacted by hunger and its root causes, including Black, Brown, Indigenous and immigrant communities.
    • A multi-generational, diverse coalition of grassroots organizations, alliances and social movements already creating sustainable solutions in their communities.
    • Grassroots intersectional representation including small-scale farmers, urban growers, farmworkers, food access organizations, Black & Indigenous food sovereignty movements, food chain workers.
  • Alignment with powerful, proven frameworks led by BIPOC and grassroots movements for Just Transition, Solidarity Economy, Agroecology and Food Sovereignty, Right to Food and the Transformation of the Emergency Food System (as defined in section II. above).
  • Establish and expand federal policies and programs that ensure:
    • The right to food is enshrined in law, justiciable, and enforced.
    • Thriving wages, stable employment, adequate hours, safe working conditions, and the ease of union representation.
    • Protections and rights for workers along the food chain, including farmworkers.
    • Policies that ensure no child goes hungry and has adequate access to healthy meals.
      • Universal School Meals
        • Provide school breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students thereby giving healthy meals to children in school to learn, grow, and thrive.
        • Expand access to healthy meals in afterschool programs.
        • Increase benefits for summer meals when children are out of school.
        • Strengthen and expand the WIC program to improve food security and nutrition at a critical time in child development.
        • Permanent reinstatement of the Child Tax Credit
    • Robust and responsive government social protection programs to be well-funded and depoliticized.
      • Modernization of SNAP and WIC through expanded eligibility, increased value of benefits in line with current cost of living, streamlined and simplified enrollment, reduced barriers to usage, and by making COVID- 19 pandemic EBT improvements permanent.
    • Direct investments in the people creating just, sustainable regional food and farm economies
      • Divestment from Big Ag
        • Scrutinize agricultural subsidies and shift into a more decentralized model that supports regional and local food economies.
      • Investment in Black, Brown and Indigenous farmers and their access to land, seeds, and water
      • Significant increase and investment in the USDA Community Food Projects Grant Program
        • USDA NIFA Community Food Project Grants currently invest in small shifts from mega agriculture policies, that subsidize foods we don’t eat or are not good for our health, to frontline projects transforming communities and improving access to healthy food. Increase funding of the Community Food Project Grants from $5M annually to $500M annually in order to strengthen local and regional food economies that produce healthy food and also to help food banks, pantries, and kitchens move from food charity to food justice.
    • Updated federal poverty guidelines to account for differences in the standard of living across the U.S. and to include contemporary expenditures as a percentage of income other than food consumption, including childcare, health care, transportation, and housing.
    • Investments in strategies to become carbon neutral, while alleviating the burden of that transition on the poorest globally and domestically.
    • Development and promotion of national strategies for agroecology and food sovereignty.
    • End of structural racism and discrimination against groups most affected by hunger and malnutrition.
    • End of government practice of confluence with the food industry in the form of commodity food programs and industry participation in congressional lobbying.
  • Develop a transparent process for true accountability to the people.
  • Hold corporations accountable.
    • Corporations that receive federal government subsidies, tax breaks, and contracts should be held accountable to ensure their workers are paid a thriving wage and are not on a food line or in need of SNAP benefits.
  • Make a ‘whole of government’, long term commitment to non-profit partner organizations to invest in solutions that center transformative community approaches that ensure access to food as a basic human right.