1. Dwyer, Johanna DSc, RD

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The 50th anniversary of the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health is an opportune time to look back at what made it possible, what progress has been made, and what issues continue to require attention.


This first ever White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health came about and accomplished so much because many different factors converged at once.


* The Times



First there were the times themselves. Looming above every event in 1969 was the seemingly unending Vietnam War, with its deep and growing unpopularity among broad segments of the population, especially in the universities filled with potential draftees. Domestic concerns in the US homeland itself included a near-crisis situation involving hunger and malnutrition among poor minorities, blacks, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and the aged in many parts of the country. While hunger had never been a stranger to the United States, television and the mass media made the public more aware of it than ever before through Dan Schorr's 1967 televised special on Hunger in America, which was watched by millions of Americans. In 1968, The Poor People's March on Washington filled the Capitol, and evening news programs often featured updates of these events. At the time there was a growing recognition that the leading causes of disability and death in our population were diet-related chronic degenerative diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. On the food front, the convenience revolution after World War II meant that rather than preparing foods from scratch at home, more and more American consumers ate more highly processed and packaged foods and ate out, putting food safety and quality under the microscope. There was growing concern that our food supply might need adjustment to make healthful choices easier, but few national data on the nation's nutritional status, health, and food supply were available.


* A President determined to act before Congress did



President Richard M Nixon, who had been elected on a platform of bringing the war to a conclusion and peace to domestic unrest felt a pressing need to make positive proposals that would enhance the public welfare and to demonstrate that he was a caring leader who could govern effectively. A few years earlier, an activist President Johnson and Congress had passed legislation establishing a Civil Rights Act few years earlier. In 1968, the Senate had established the Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs to study hunger and recommend the federal response. The committee consisted of some of the most articulate and powerful members of the Senate, including Senators George McGovern, Allen Ellender, Ralph Yarborough, Robert Dole, Charles Percy, Edward Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and many others. Their popularity and the aspirations of many of the committee's members for the presidency themselves were certainly not lost on Nixon, and so there was every reason for haste. Increasing vocal agitation for changes in the status quo began. Activists demanded a minimum income for the poor and other changes in social and public welfare programs.


* Jean Mayer's Vision



Although there were many individuals in all sectors of society who advocated for changes, it was Jean Mayer's vision that enabled him to plan a conference that would encompass all of the many issues needing attention. Mayer saw the need for three elements of the conference if the conference were to be successful:


* a bipartisan coalition


* private, voluntary, and public sector collaboration and


* accountability



The Conference

President Nixon appointed Jean Mayer, PhD, DSc, then professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and later president of Tufts University, in May 1969 for the White House Conference to be held in December of the year. Mayer and his staff (including yours truly) were housed in the Old Executive Office Building, a lovely Victorian structure right next to the White House. Mayer drafted an agenda covering many issues and appointed committees consisting of well-known researchers, consumer advocates, educators, and industry leaders to study the problems and develop reports with action items on a variety of issues, including


* national nutrition monitoring


* nutrition of vulnerable groups


* wholesomeness and nutritional value of food


* nutritional literacy of the public and health professionals, among others


* voluntary action to help the poor right


* federal programs affecting nutrition



Those federal programs that directly involved feeding people were of particular concern. These included the Armed forces, residents in Veterans Administration and other federal hospitals, and special groups for which the government had special responsibility such as American Indians, Aleuts, Alaskan Natives, and residents of the trust territories in the Pacific and elsewhere. There were also indices programs providing money or in-kind services such as food stamps and the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program, and the then fledgling Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children also received attention.


* White House Conference Achievements



Dr Mayer managed to devise a plan that involved public, private, and public sector collaboration and bipartisan collaboration in Congress and to convince the administration to insist on accountability. During the 6 months left in 1969, the 26 advisory panels, made up of 475 people, drafted and submitted preliminary recommendations on all of these topics.


The conference was held in Washington, DC, in the Wardman Park hotel, with more than 2500 delegates from all parts of the country attending. At the same time, the streets of the Capitol were choked with demonstrators against the Vietnam War, complete with riot police and occasional tear gas bombs. The conference was graced by the First Lady Pat Nixon and many other dignitaries and covered on television. The 20 sessions produced 1800 recommendations, which were published and presented to President Nixon and the public shortly thereafter.


Action on the agenda topics continued during 1970. White House consumer advisor Virginia Knauer worked closely with many other consumer advocates, including Esther Peterson, who had served as assistant secretary of labor in the Johnson Administration, Carol Tucker Foreman, and the major consumer organizations, including the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers' Union, and Ralph Nader, among many others. Federal officials who had been detailed from their agencies to work on the conference went back to their agencies and led efforts to reform existing programs and establish new ones. Bipartisan coalitions in Congress held hearings and acted through legislation. Collaborations between professional associations involving food and health and advocacy groups began to tackle how to make progress in nutrition monitoring and surveillance and to move the nutrition research agenda forward. Educators tackled the problem of nutrition literacy at the public level. The private sector became very much involved in developing the food stamp program and working with government to improve the monitoring and regulation of the food supply. The social welfare, civil rights groups including Rev Jesse Jackson and many church women's groups, hunger groups, and church social action groups all worked together with Congress to stimulate the development of the federal programs that are now known as the food programs.


In late 1970, under the leadership of Dr Mayer, the secretariat published a follow-up report, which found that 1650 out of the 1800 recommendations had been acted upon. One reason the report succeeded in moving the dial on many nutrition issues involving research, education, and social and public welfare was that accountability was taken very seriously. Over the next several years, despite the war, and the eventual resignation of President Nixon, the conference bore fruit in many areas. What made the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health a success provides lessons that we need to apply again to the nutrition problems of today. It was a time during which members of Congress worked together to solve problems, people listened to instead of accusing each other, compromised on a course of action, put in the hard work to make new and better realities, and then followed up to further tailor programs to the ever changing realities of American life.


As the President said in his address: "This conference marks the coalescing of the national conscience. It marks a triumph of the American system. [horizontal ellipsis]This Nation has the capacity to provide an adequate diet for every American. The calling of this conference demonstrates we have the will to achieve that goal. What we need is to find the most effective means for doing so consistent with maintaining the vitality of the system that makes it all possible." These were some of the truest words Richard Nixon ever spoke! While much remains to be done, the White House Conference gave our country a solid foundation from which we must continue to act.



Thanks to Donna Porter, PhD formerly of Library of Congress for her help in recalling the times and events.