The Lasting Influence of the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health

Woteki speaking at podium

March 31, 2020

In 1969, then-President Richard Nixon commissioned the first and only White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health, which became a catalyst for much-needed progress in U.S. policy focused on hunger and malnutrition. The landmark conference convened more than 5,000 people from diverse backgrounds who felt the White House and federal government had a crucial role to play in addressing the hunger and malnutrition problems plaguing millions of Americans. What was set in motion over the course of the three-day conference changed the national landscape around food and nutrition policy, and has had lasting impact almost five decades years later.

2019 marked the 50thanniversary of the 1969 conference. To commemorate the anniversary and explore the current state of food and nutrition challenges in the United States along with potential policy solutions, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health co-hosted 50thanniversary events in Boston and Washington, D.C. in October 2019. Catherine E. Woteki, Distinguished Institute Professor from the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute, was featured as a keynote speaker at the Boston event where she presented, “Impacts and Echoes: The Lasting Influence of the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health.”

In her keynote address, Woteki discussed the confluence of factors preceding and shaping the conference, from the social and political landscape – including the Civil Rights era, the emergence of the women’s liberation movement, and the Vietnam War – to the state of the food, nutritional science, and public health environments in the country at that time. Several additional forces coalesced late in the 1960s, revealing the urgent need to address the hunger and malnutrition issues the country was facing.

Among them, Woteki explained, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare launched a 10-state nutrition survey in 1967 of more than 86,000 people, which concluded that nearly 20 percent of citizens surveyed were malnourished to the extent that they would develop health issues as a result. Then, in May 1968, CBS News aired “Hunger in America,” a Peabody-winning documentary that opened the country’s eyes to the approximately 10 million people suffering from hunger and malnutrition in communities across America – an issue that many had assumed had long been eradicated.

Later that year, Woteki continued, the Citizens’ Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition – a group of 25 religious, labor, legal, medical, and other professionals formed to study hunger in America – published Hunger, U.S.A., a scathing report that revealed that hunger and malnutrition affected millions of Americans, federal programs focused on hunger had largely failed, and many of these programs were discriminatory against the poor and favored agricultural companies. All of these factors contributed to growing sentiment across America and among lawmakers that something must be done to address this increasingly dire situation.  

In June 1969, President Nixon took action and appointed Dr. Jean Mayer to plan and lead the first-ever White House Conference to focus national attention and resources to hunger and nutrition issues. According to Woteki, from Dec. 2-4, 1969, approximately 5,000 participants from a variety of interest groups developed and voted on 1,800-plus recommendations to overhaul the country’s efforts to combat hunger and malnutrition. Of those recommendations, 1,560 were implemented, resulting in major expansions to hunger-related programs, and ultimately the passage of landmark legislation including the 1974 Food Stamp Act, the 1975 School Breakfast Program and Summer Food Program, authorization of the Supplemental Feeding Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC), and improvements to food and ingredient labeling. 

According to Woteki, as we look back 50 years later, we’ve experienced numerous changes that have affected our food and nutrition landscape, such as:

  • Fluctuating unemployment and poverty;
  • The rise of female participation in the workforce, which has implications for meals eaten away from home;
  • The emergence of social media as a major source of news;
  • A decrease in social support systems, which impacts how and with whom Americans eat;
  • Time pressures and stress; and,
  • Rising ecological awareness.

Despite how much has changed over the last five decades, Woteki stated that the concerns addressed at the 1969 conference still echo in our national food and health environment today. “Food production today is more than sufficient to supply nutritional needs, yet hunger and malnutrition among the poor remain a significant public health problem,” she said. “According to the latest research, approximately 14 million households in the U.S. are food insecure each year, most of which are concentrated in the south and midwestern regions of the country. Guaranteed income is still in the national conversation as a potential solution for solving poverty-related issues including hunger, and Americans continue to struggle with health concerns related to food such as obesity.”

“The 1969 conference indisputably had immediate as well as long-lasting effects on the ability of poor people to access food, and it set in motion so many programs and government and non-governmental actions that continue to influence today. But, we have an unfinished agenda,” Woteki said.

“As an anonymous participant at the 1969 conference said, ‘…A tiny step forward has been taken and I hope we don’t stop walking forward.’ We could paraphrase that same quote today. I hope we continue taking steps forward.”

Samantha Cohen, Brandon Kramer, and Vicki Lancaster from the Biocomplexity Institute along with Jill James, Wendy Shaw, and Wayne Thompson from the USDA’s National Agricultural Library contributed to the literature review Woteki presented in her keynote speech. In Fall 2020, the Annual Review of Nutrition will publish a paper focused on the literature from Woteki’s presentation along with its influencers and influences. In addition, the team is developing a website dedicated to visualizing the major events of the past 50 years, analyzing the 1969 White House Conference Report, and reviewing select nutrition literature before and after 1990.

View Woteki’s full presentation (starting at 25:00) and the entire 50thAnniversary webcast at: https://harvard.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=0efe988f-6903-46c6-bd91-aac30132f108. More information as well as the full Report on the 50thAnniversary of the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health: Honoring the Past, Taking Actions for our Future is available at: https://sites.tufts.edu/foodnutritionandhealth2019.