Expert: Whole Government, Whole Country Approach Needed to End Diet-related Diseases

Catherine Oakar, special assistant to the President for Public Health and Disparities in the Domestic Policy Council at The White House, discusses plans to address diet-related diseases in a conference held at The White House in September 2022.

The prevalence of diet-related diseases is a core issue facing the country today, explained Catherine Oakar, special assistant to the President for Public Health and Disparities in the Domestic Policy Council at The White House, during a session at the 2022 National Association of Chain Drug Stores Total Store Expo. With preventable diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, remaining the leading causes of death and disability, there remain core issues underlying the prevalence of these preventable diseases that must be addressed to progress the wellbeing of all people, according to Oakar.1

“Heart disease is a number one killer and diabetes is running rampant. I think if I asked everyone to raise their hand who has a family member with diabetes or high blood pressure, everybody in this room would raise their hands,” Oakar said. “Both my parents have had heart attacks, so this is a very personal issue for me, and I suspect it is for so many others. So we cannot wait to act.”1

As a member of the Domestic Policy Council, Oakar and her colleagues drive President Biden’s domestic agenda throughout the country. With a core element of that agenda being public health and wellbeing, the Domestic Policy Council convened The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which is set to take place at the end of September 2022, according to Oakar.1

This conference will gather stakeholders in both the public and private sectors to support the implementation of a coordinated strategy to accelerate progress and change to not only address diet-related diseases, but also end hunger, improve nutrition and physical activity, and close disparities surrounding these issues.2

“Reducing disparities is really a big piece of the puzzle because we don’t want to make it better for some and leave others high and dry. This has to be a whole government, whole country approach,” Oakar said. “Also, many of the people who are affected by food insecurity are disproportionately affected by diabetes—and that’s unacceptable.”1

The first White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health was held in 1969, and ultimately impacted the country’s food policy agenda for the next 50 years. Due to the far-reaching impact of this event, the second White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health will be held with high hopes of providing programs and solutions to support real change, Oakar explained.1,2

“It’s been 50 years since the last conference. And for those of you who don’t live and breathe it like I do, it was a big deal conference. Things like SNAP, which is food stamps, or school meals all started with this conference. So it was really a galvanizing moment,” Oakar said. “Also, it was really focused on hunger at the time, and we’re certainly focused on that [this time], but we’re also acutely aware of how diet-related disease plays a role.”1

Oakar also noted that the development of this conference has been a bipartisan issue, with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle calling for it to take place. In light of the widespread support for this effort, the Domestic Policy Council worked alongside several other organizations within the Federal government, such as the CDC and FDA, in order to develop a plan for the focus and content of the conference.1,2

“We are doing this conference because millions of people are suffering from food insecurity. They don’t know where their next meal will come from, they’re skipping meals, or they’re worried about how they’re going to put food on the table,” Oakar said.1

With this in mind, the organizations involved set the primary goal of the conference as ending hunger and increasing healthy eating and physical activity by 2030, which will ultimately lead to fewer Americans suffering from diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.2

“We wish everybody could be in the room, but we recognize that we can’t have everyone there, so know that it will be live streamed for anyone who wants to watch,” Oakar said.1

REFERENCES

  1. Oakar C, Anderson SC, Lindholz C, Nightengale B, Shah R. Health & Wellness Innovation Across Diverse Communities. Boston, MA: 2022 National Association of Chain Drug Stores Total Store Expo; August 27, 2022.
  2. The White House. White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. The White House website. Last updated June 1, 2022. Accessed August 28, 2022. https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/white-house-conference-hunger-nutrition-and-health/conference-details