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Many Americans struggle to get food. Inflation is making it worse


New numbers released this week show prices are still rising, and you probably don't need us to tell you that that includes prices for food. It was against that backdrop that the Biden administration recently convened a summit on hunger, nutrition and health. It was the first such effort in decades, and it's part of a push to marshal both government and philanthropic resources toward ending hunger and food insecurity in America. We wanted to hear more about what such an effort would actually take, so we called Tambra Raye Stevenson. She is the CEO and founder of WANDA. That's a nonprofit aimed at supporting advocacy around food security. Tambra Raye Stevenson, thanks so much for joining us.

TAMBRA RAYE STEVENSON: Thank you for first having me on and having an important conversation that involves and impacts every one of us in this country.

MARTIN: So could you just start by telling me the scope of the problem? I mean, we hear a lot of data around how big the problem of food insecurity is in America. And is that the same thing as hunger? Could you just frame the problem for us in the way that you see it?

STEVENSON: Well, first, this conference was one of two historic conferences that focused on hunger, nutrition and health in this country. And just to paint the picture, when CBS did a "Hunger In America" special in 1969 that highlighted malnutrition in this country, where - when we typically see those images of, like, starving babies, the hunger that we see today in 2022 is one of this double burden of malnutrition, where we have this - no pun intended, but blooming epidemic of not only obesity but metabolic health issues that you see by way of diabetes and other related chronic diseases. And it's really hit a peak where we have seen policies that focused on basically fattening us up, focusing on calories, macronutrients. And now we are suffering from a micronutrient deficiency of having not enough vitamins, minerals and fiber in our diet.

And so this conference and the issues that came about is really a next step after the U.N. Food Systems Summit that happened this past year under the dynamic of the U.N. painting - that we need to focus not just simply on the food, the input, but also the output of what does food mean to us? How do we shape our values around it? Is it our medicine? Will it heal us? Will it kill us? And what - this conference gave us an opportunity and a platform to discuss the future of food and nutrition policy over the next, really, 50 years in this country.

MARTIN: Obviously, this is a big subject and you know quite a lot about it. But just - could you give us kind of the executive summary version - or what are some of the elements of the plan that you think are particularly helpful? And then are there things where you think it misses the mark or where there are things that are missing?

STEVENSON: Well, the first thing - he gets it right when he talks about, one, we all need to have access to healthy, affordable foods, no question about it. But then the other part that I really enjoy seeing in this piece is about traditional foods. When we talk about food as medicine, interventions that investments are going to be pouring into, when you think about health insurance companies, produce prescription programs, and how are we basically making sure that people see food in the context of being able to be a part of the healing system in our society? The other part that I really enjoyed in this piece was the nutrition workforce. It's one of the key pieces that we've advocated.

And right now we need to make those investments with student loan repayment programs and making sure that we cut any red tape and make sure that the careers in the food system are more widely available and promoted to communities to not only uplift them economically, but nutritionally as well. And so those are the key pieces. Now, what I did not immediately see is the role that local food policy councils can have. As someone who serves on the D.C. Food Policy Council chairing nutrition and health, I see the importance of food democracy. And what that means is having civic participation in the food system and ensuring that food policy councils are available in every city and state to ensure that we have a mechanism for people who can channel their grievances and turn them into productive action plans and policies that change the way in which we have - had to address food apartheid and food deserts in this country.

And so right now, as we have traveled across Oklahoma, Texas, LA, hosting our civic sisterhood suppers and asking Black women in particular, do you feel that you're participating in the food system and the making of it, that your ancestors played a critical role in building of it? And what can we do differently to ensure that you have a voice and you're able to see that your human potential is valued in the making of this food economy?

MARTIN: I'm sure you remember that the former first lady, Michelle Obama, tried to make healthy eating, particularly among kids - she made it one of sort of her key activities as first lady, and she was ridiculed for that in some quarters. People said, oh, she's trying to take cupcakes away from kids and things of that sort. And I guess what I'm asking you is, given your background in the field, do you see more consensus developing around these issues, regardless of political party? Do you think that there's kind of a shared national understanding now, or are we developing one that nutrition is important?

STEVENSON: Right. This conference set the tone and stage that we are seeing nutrition as important, and we understand that we all have to play a critical role. I think - one, I just want to give a shoutout to former First Lady Michelle Obama for the yeoman's work that she did in helping to use her position to help elevate such a critical conversation. And just like a winning football team, we got to know if we're trying to get to the championship, we can't focus on the naysayers. We got to keep our goal on who is at this - at the heart of it, who is most impacted - our children and our families. And what are we going to do to get to that goal of making sure that they have the resources they need to thrive?

MARTIN: That was Tambra Raye Stevenson, CEO and founder of WANDA. That's a nonprofit aimed at bolstering advocacy around food security. And she was one of the participants at the White House conference on health and nutrition. Tambra Raye Stevenson, thanks so much for talking with us today.

STEVENSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.