How can we help children who are going hungry? Chrissy Teigen asks an expert.

President Joe Biden addresses the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 28, 2022.
President Joe Biden addresses the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 28, 2022.

Claire and I come from different food backgrounds – she’s the CEO of Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food pantries, and I’m a food author and entrepreneur. But we’re both mothers, and we both understand how feeding our families can be about more than just providing sustenance – it’s how we show our love. And we both believe deeply that no child in this country should ever go a day without the food they need to thrive, because reliable access to food is everything.

How can a child learn, play and grow if they’re worried about where the next meal is coming from? We believe that our country can come together to solve these issues: We have the ideas, organizations, public will and opportunities to create change, but we need policymakers to help us take action. Today, tomorrow and every day until we ensure families and children have access to enough food to thrive, we all have to be a part of cutting through the red tape and getting real solutions on the table.

I’ve worked with Claire and the organization for years, and when I heard that Feeding America will be joining leaders from the worlds of business, advocacy and policymaking for the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health in more than 50 years, I wanted to ask her, as a friend and an expert: What can we do to change the lives of people experiencing food insecurity?

Chrissy Teigen and John Legend attend a City Harvest fundraiser in New York on April 26, 2022, to help provide meals for those in need.
Chrissy Teigen and John Legend attend a City Harvest fundraiser in New York on April 26, 2022, to help provide meals for those in need.

It's been more than 50 years since the White House’s first (and only) conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health. Why is now the perfect time to bring this conference back?

It’s astounding that in one of the richest countries in the world, 1 in 6 people must turn to the charitable food sector for help. Exacerbated by the pandemic, nearly 34 million people in the United States, including 9 million children, are unsure about where their next meal will come from. And the majority of food banks have seen steady or increased demand since last June.

Even as food insecurity among households with children declined in 2021, Feeding America network food banks and partner food pantries across the country are seeing sharp increases in demand due to the high cost of food and the sunsetting of pandemic-era assistance programs that helped curb hunger amid the COVID-19 global health crisis.

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Too many households simply don't have enough food for every family member to lead a healthy life. Family mealtimes are a source of anxiety rather than a moment of connection. This is simply unacceptable. Now more than ever we need bold, new ideas to ensure our neighbors, co-workers and friends get the food and resources they need to thrive. The White House conference Wednesday is an extraordinary opportunity to make substantial progress toward ending hunger in America.

These “increases” aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet – they mean we’re in the middle of a battle, and people are leaving the field.

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America

You’ve talked about the way dinner at the end of a long day is how you and your family check in as a unit. How can we make sure those stories are a part of the conversation on public policy solutions?

You’re absolutely right. The stories and experiences of our neighbors need to be at the center of the policymaking process. Food insecurity can mean facing impossible choices as a parent. As one mother explained to us in a recent listening session, “I don't even eat but once (a day) to ensure they (the children) eat."

Food insecurity is a solvable problem: But no one-size-fits-all solution exists. Focus on local actions.

Through Elevating Voices to End Hunger Together, our community listening initiative, we connected with 36,000 people from all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico, to really listen, learn and understand what they need so we can build and share recommendations for comprehensive solutions to this growing hunger crisis that threatens to undermine the fabric of our society: our families, our communities and the well-being of our children.

What can we do, today, to help working families spend less time worrying about putting food on the table?

We need to enhance both programs and processes to meet increasing demand due to rising costs. Inflation and price hikes have made the hunger crisis worse and have made healthy options less accessible than ever. The public overwhelmingly agrees increasing funding for and access to programs like SNAP, a government program that helps people buy the food they need, is a critical solution to address hunger, and opposes restrictions on what people can purchase.​ And this is where policymakers can really make a difference.

One mother described the issue as, “I would like to receive my benefits back. … I make too much money (and) I can’t receive my SNAP benefits, and it's hard being a single mother trying to provide food for my kids and pay my bills."

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There are some clear ways we can collectively impact people's lives by pushing for bold policy reforms to strengthen and modernize SNAP, including:

►Increasing SNAP’s purchasing power to reflect the real cost of living. Currently, SNAP benefits average to just over $5 a day per person.

►Improving choice for people receiving SNAP benefits by expanding food options instead of limiting them.

►Simplifying and streamlining eligibility processes, particularly for seniors, college students, immigrants and others who do not qualify for benefits.

►Providing better support for individuals seeking employment by removing time limits on benefits during the job-search process.

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How can we change the way our society operates in order to reduce food needs?

If we’re going to tackle hunger in this country, we absolutely need to think bigger and bolder. We can and must expand existing food assistance programs, and we also need to recognize that hunger exists often because of larger, related socioeconomic challenges.

We need broader policy solutions focused on tackling the root causes of hunger and economic vulnerability – including creating good-paying jobs within communities most impacted by hunger, expanding access to both child care and health care, building robust public transit systems, eliminating homelessness, and investing in safe and affordable housing infrastructure.

These issues are interconnected, and we can only hope to end hunger once we act comprehensively.

Chrissy Teigen and her mother, Vilailuck "Pepper" Teigen, cook together.
Chrissy Teigen and her mother, Vilailuck "Pepper" Teigen, cook together.

How can we challenge the stigma around food assistance programs to make them more accessible and effective?

Stigma and shame are frequently cited as obstacles to receiving food assistance. Innovations like the electronic benefits transfer (EBT) program have helped, and fundamentally, we must shift away from the myth that poverty is an individual failing rather than a reality we’re forced to contend with as a result of economic inequality, longstanding systemic racism and overall structural failures.

We need economic and social policies removing stigmatizing eligibility restrictions that exacerbate hunger for unemployed people, college students and formerly incarcerated individuals. Pushing for continued innovations in federal nutrition programs, such as modernizing WIC (program for women, infants and children) and offering healthy school meals to all students, is crucial. Nobody should be made to feel marginalized due to life’s circumstances.

We can and must work toward a brighter, hunger-free future for all – from the oldest to the youngest neighbor. It will take all of us working together with people facing hunger, policymakers, advocates, donors and volunteers to address the root causes of hunger.

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot is the CEO of Feeding America.

Chrissy Teigen is a model, cookbook author and social justice activist. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chrissy Teigen: What White House hunger conference leader told me