As Prepared For Delivery:
Hi, everybody. Thank you to Feeding America and the Food Research & Action Center for all that you do. Let me begin by saying that—like so many of us these days—my prayers have been with the heroic defenders of Ukraine as they endure so much horror and tragedy. So, scrolling through Twitter the other day, I was heartened to see a friend and hero of mine—Chef José Andrés—announce that his World Central Kitchen had arrived at the Polish border and was feeding Ukrainian refugees. Putin brought bombs; José Andrés brought chicken and vegetable stew and fresh baked bread. It was a powerful reminder that there are few things more basic—or more vital—than feeding the hungry, whether here at home or halfway around the world.
That’s a long way of saying that I’m very glad to join you all—virtually—at this important conference. As President Biden’s Domestic Policy Advisor, I have the privilege of driving the development and implementation of the President’s domestic policy agenda in the White House and across the federal government, from health care to economic mobility to rural and urban policy. That includes working to equitably address nutrition and food insecurity. And, on that front, we’ve been busy.
As you’re all acutely aware, when President Biden took office in January 2021, COVID was exacerbating hunger and food insecurity for millions of Americans. The schools on which so many young people rely for a good meal had gone remote. More than one in eight American households—nearly 30 million households—were experiencing food insecurity. President Biden often recalls those images of cars lined up for miles at food pantries, waiting for a lifesaving load to be placed in the trunk. Maybe some of you were helping to load those cars.
Tackling this challenge demanded a whole-of-government approach, and that’s exactly what we’ve put into action. There’s a reason that you’re hearing today from half a dozen Cabinet officials—not just the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, but also the Secretary of Education, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and the Secretary of Transportation. And, our collaboration goes even beyond that. The Department of Defense and the VA, for instance, are taking steps to reduce food insecurity among military and veteran families. The reality is this: to make sure Americans can put food on their table, we need the entire federal government at the table.
Working together, we’ve made strong progress towards making our hunger and nutrition efforts more equitable and getting food to those who need it most. As many of you have seen firsthand, the President’s American Rescue Plan has been a gamechanger. It allowed us to maintain a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits through September 2021—at which point, the Department of Agriculture’s updated Thrifty Food Plan increased benefits by an average of $36.30 per person per month. It’s estimated that the Thrifty update will lift 2.4 million Americans—including more than a million children—above the poverty line. The Rescue Plan also invested $880 million to modernize the WIC program and increase the monthly voucher from $9 per child to $35 per child, so that WIC participants can buy healthier fruits and vegetables. We’re continuing to invest in food banks, including half a billion in Rescue Plan resources to purchase food from local and underserved producers and expand access to emergency food in rural, remote, and low-income areas. We’ve also provided schools additional flexibility and support in the face of supply chain disruptions, worker shortages, and unpredictable school closures. That includes expanding access to the Pandemic-EBT program to allow families to purchase food even while schools are closed and during the summer.
The results of this concerted effort have been very encouraging. Compared to the peak of pandemic food insecurity in December 2020, just before President Biden came into office, 7.6 million more American households are now food secure. According to a recent Brookings report, Pandemic-EBT alone reduced food insufficiency in SNAP households by 28 percent. Making P-EBT available during the summer—when child hunger typically spikes—helped us address summer hunger for over 30 million children, ten times more than ever before.
And, we’re not just expanding access to food—we’re expanding access to healthy food. We know that diet-related diseases like heart disease and diabetes are on the rise, disproportionately impacting people of color as well as low-income and rural communities. Those diseases are also responsible for nearly $50 billion in annual health care costs, threatening the health of Americans and the health of the American economy. To that end, USDA has released new transitional school nutrition standards earlier this year, helping to ensure that school meals—where our kids often eat healthiest—become even healthier. The Food and Drug Administration also put out voluntary sodium reduction targets for industry, which will help decrease the amount of sodium in the foods we eat. If we can lower Americans’ sodium intake by roughly 40 percent over the next decade, we can save half a million lives and nearly $100 billion in health care costs.
But, we can’t let up. That’s why the President has called on Congress to expand free school meals during the school year and making Summer EBT available to all children receiving free and reduced meals. He’s advocated for territories to be able to transition from block grants to SNAP. And he’s proposed a new Healthy Food Incentives Demonstration that would help schools expand healthy food options. We need to ensure that children and families not only have access to food, but that they have access to nutritious food.
We’ll keep doing our part in the Biden-Harris Administration. And, we’ll be looking to all of you—whether you’re a food bank, or a sustainable agriculture organization, or an anti-poverty advocate—to continue partner with us and help us push forward. As my friend Jose Andres said from the Ukrainian border, “We are all an amazing Army of Empathy… We can end hunger in the world.” He’s right. We can end hunger. And, with your help, I believe we will. Thank you all very much.