An initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Confronting the Challenges of Transforming Public Health

A conversation between RWJF President and CEO Dr. Richard Besser and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack

School Meals SNAP WIC


June 23rd, 2021


What have we learned from the pandemic and how can we apply those lessons to advance equity and improve public health in the future?

RWJF president and CEO Dr. Richard Besser spoke with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about how critical federal nutrition programs, including SNAP, WIC, school meals and summer feeding initiatives are for improving health equity, addressing hunger, and reducing obesity.

Dr. Besser and Secretary Vilsack talked about USDA’s efforts to assess how increasing the SNAP benefit helped families and the barriers participants confronted in the pandemic. According to USDA’s study1, nine out of 10 SNAP participants faced hurdles in providing their families with a healthy diet throughout the month, and 61% say it’s due to the cost of healthy foods.

Secretary Vilsack spoke about the need to reexamine the Thrifty Food Plan2, which helps determine the SNAP benefit level, especially with the pending benefit reduction set for September 2021. He also talked about the need to modernize SNAP, including by supporting online shopping to help families who lack access to transportation to their local grocery stores and encouraged governors to ensure that people who are qualified for the program take full advantage of the benefits.

Dr. Besser and Secretary Vilsack also discussed the need and opportunities for expanding summer feeding programs, the benefits of universal, free school meals, and how connecting more people to WIC can help address our nation’s maternal health crisis. To learn more, tune into the video below.

This conversation was part of the Future of Health Summit, hosted by the Milken Institute in June 2021.

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