Politicians are hellbent on intruding further into Americans’ stomachs. In September, President Biden hosted a White House Summit on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. A vast array of activists gathered, waiting for Biden to mobilize Washington to open the floodgates to far more food handouts. But their fond hopes did not survive the opening moments of Biden’s speech.
“Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie? I thought she was going to be here,” Biden pleaded from the podium. He was looking for Rep. Jackie Walorski, a Republican congresswoman from Indiana who died the previous month in a car wreck. The White House issued a condolence statement on her death at the time, but Biden forgot. Biden’s blundering and cognitive challenges were the main media storyline on the summit.
Biden’s bewilderment on Jackie epitomized his cluelessness on the issue of hunger and food aid. The president ended his speech by rambling about being able to “wave a wand” to solve problems. But neither Biden nor the summit attendees admitted the vast collateral damage from a 50+ year surge of federal food aid.
Nixon started it
In 1969, President Richard Nixon held a summit on hunger and received glowing press coverage for proclaiming, “The moment is at hand to put an end to hunger in America itself for all time.” In 1969, three million Americans received food stamps, a burgeoning federal program that cost $228 million that year. In 2021, 41 million people received food stamps, and the program cost $114 billion. Thanks to an array of other subsidies, the federal government is now feeding more than 100 million people.
At the September summit, Biden proclaimed a goal “to end hunger in this country by the year 2030.” The media portrayed this as the first such pledge since the Nixon era — but they forgot one of the biggest train wrecks of the Obama era.
In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to end child hunger by 2015. Obama vastly expanded federal school feeding programs with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Thanks to that law, all schools with at least 40 percent low-income students were entitled to offer free federally subsidized breakfasts and lunches to all students. First Lady Michelle Obama, who spearheaded the effort, declared in 2010 that because children’s nutrition is so important, “we can’t just leave it up to the parents.”
The great harm of federal school food programs
But schools offered “carb loading” more appropriate for marathon runners than for schoolchildren. Homer Simpson is the patron saint of federal school breakfasts. Donuts, pastries, apple juice, and other high-sugar foods had starring roles in school breakfast menus across the nation. Some school officials scorned parents who protested schools feeding their kids a second breakfast (after they’ve eaten at home) and deluging them with sugary junk.
A 2021 analysis published in the Nutrients journal found that almost all school systems exceeded the dietary guidelines for sugar in breakfasts. Among the most sugar-laden foods routinely given to children were sweetened cereal, flavored milk, toaster pastries, cookies, cakes, and cinnamon buns. The Center for Science in the Public
Interest recently derided public schools for relying on Lucky Charms, Marshmallow Mateys cereal, and Rich’s Chocolate Chip and Cinnamon Ultimate Breakfast Rounds. It is a federal crime for food manufacturers to sell products without nutritional labeling, but the USDA does not require schools to disclose to parents how much sugar is being fed to their kids.
Those free breakfasts were a linchpin of Michelle Obama’s signature issue, her “Let’s Move” campaign. Michelle Obama received media sainthood for her campaign against child obesity, but even more children are super-sizing nowadays. The percentage of overweight youth rose from 14.9 percent in 2009–10 to 16.6 percent in 2015–16, while the percentage of obese youth rose from 16.9 percent to 18.5 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The New York Times noted in 2020 that reports that the child obesity problem had stabilized were “an illusion. If anything, things have gotten worse.”
At the September summit, Biden announced plans to “make at least 9 million more students eligible for free school meals — a major first step for free meals for every single student.” To massively expand the program, the feds reward schools that encourage all children to eat free breakfasts in the classroom. But a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research report found that providing breakfast in the classroom (a favorite Obama administration policy) more than doubled “the likelihood of eating two breakfasts.”
Childhood obesity: made in Washington, D.C.
A 2016 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics report found that “receiving school breakfasts more than doubled the odds of becoming obese for children from families below the federal poverty line compared with children of similar socioeconomic backgrounds who did not regularly receive school breakfasts.”
School lunches have also been nutritional fiascos for almost 50 years. A 2010 University of Michigan study found that students who regularly ate school lunches were 29 percent more likely to be overweight and that consumption of school lunches was the strongest single predictor of childhood obesity.
Obesity has increased nationwide almost four-fold since 1980. Food stamps, also known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), are a primary culprit. Walter Willett, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Nutrition, observed in 2015, “We’ve analyzed what [food-stamp] participants are eating and it’s horrible food. It’s a diet designed to produce obesity and diabetes.”
A 2017 study published in BMC Public Health found that food-stamp recipients were twice as likely to be obese as eligible nonrecipients. The American Journal of Public Health reported in 2017 that food stamp recipients had double the likelihood of cardio-related mortality and three times the rate of diabetes-related mortality than the general population, and sharply higher risks than eligible nonrecipients of food stamps.
Food stamps are simply a federal blank check to enable recipients to purchase whatever items they please, regardless of nutritional content or lack thereof. While politicians portray hunger as the gravest peril for the poor, “seven times as many [low-income] children are obese as are underweight,” the Journal of the American Medical Association noted in 2012.
In August 2021, the Biden administration tacitly invoked obesity to justify the biggest boost in food-stamp benefits in history. USDA revised its Thrifty Food Plan, which determines food stamp benefit levels, to “reflect current realities providing sufficient energy to support current weight status.”
Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute noted, “Giving SNAP participants more money without restrictions will more than likely increase the consumption of unhealthy items, worsening the problems of obesity and disease caused by poor diet.” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack justified the higher benefits to prevent beefy mobs from attacking USDA headquarters: “We may have a Constitution and a Declaration of Independence, but if we had 42 million Americans who were going hungry, really hungry, they wouldn’t be happy and there would be political instability.”
More than 40 years ago, the Congressional Budget Office warned that “it still remains unclear if increased food purchases … means improved nutritional status.” In recent decades, an array of governors and mayors (including New York City’s Mike Bloomberg) sought to amend the food stamp program to cease paying for junk food. A 2014 Stanford University study concluded that prohibiting the use of food stamps for sugary drinks would prevent 141,000 kids from becoming fat and save a quarter million adults from Type 2 diabetes.
But the appearance of benevolence is worth more than the reality. When Congress was reauthorizing food assistance programs in 2018, efforts to reform the program were thwarted by “corporate lobbying primarily by the beverage and food retail industries” and “a desire by liberals to defend SNAP as income support for the poor even if nutrition outcomes are suboptimal,” as Harvard professor Robert Paarlberg noted.
Biden’s plan more of the same
Instead of reforming food stamps to cease paying for junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages, as the American Medical Association recommends, Biden will pressure private “companies to reformulate food products.” The administration will also push for USDA regulations to compel “SNAP retailers to stock a variety of healthy foods as a basic requirement to participate as a SNAP store.” But it’s fine for SNAP recipients to buy any crap on the shelf. At least the president plans to expand “obesity counseling” for people who squander their food stamps.
The White House summit ignored the role of food stamps and other benefit programs in shrinking the work force. A 2012 Journal of Public Economics study concluded that receiving food stamps sharply reduces work hours by single mothers. The 2018 Council of Economic Advisors report warned that increased enrollment in food stamps was causing healthy adults to “become increasingly reliant on welfare” and producing “stalled employment growth, in part because of the disincentives welfare programs impose on increasing one’s own income.”
Those disincentives have worsened because the Biden administration last year canceled the requirement for able-bodied adults without children to seek work instead of perpetually relying on food stamps. Secretary Vilsack declared, “Groups with typically higher unemployment, including rural Americans, Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and People of Color, and those with less than a high school education would have been disproportionally harmed by this cruel policy.” At a time when employers were begging people to accept jobs, the Biden administration portrayed the necessity of working as a human rights violation — at least for those categories Vilsack recited.
Biden even believes that federal intervention is necessary to get people to take a walk. Biden declared that in too many urban and “rural communities,” there is “no safe space for kids to play or adults to exercise.” That’s news to Idaho. Biden promised that his new infrastructure bill will solve that problem. To encourage exercise, Biden will expand the Every Kid Outdoors federal campaign. This is a paradoxical panacea coming from a politician who championed the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 that effectively put kids under house arrest.
Biden will boost federal outlays on “nutrition research” — atop the $2 billion a year current spending. But there are no plans to devise a measurement for actual hunger, despite a 2006 recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences. Instead, new research will focus on a “health equity lens” to expose “disparities” among different races and ethnic groups.
At the summit, Biden declared “one in 10 American households still do not have enough access to enough food.” The “one in 10” claim is a statistical sham based on inaccurate food-security surveys that mostly tabulate how many people say they have concerns about missing meals at some future time — or are unable to afford more expensive food they prefer. If someone fears running out of food on a single day (but didn’t run out), that is an indicator of being “food insecure” for the entire year. Because the feds don’t measure actual hunger, politicians can proclaim a perpetual emergency despite a 100-fold increase in federal food spending since Nixon’s 1969 promise to end hunger.
Unfortunately, politicians can reap applause for fighting hunger regardless of the obesity, diabetes, and other problems caused by federal food programs. The tacit message of the White House summit was that no one is responsible for what they eat or how they live and Uncle Sam must take care of everybody. But if federal spending could abolish hunger, the problem would have vanished long ago. “Government feeds best” has been a disastrous recipe for America.
This article was originally published in the January 2023 edition of Future of Freedom.