Blog by Miao Gong, Intern at Children’s HealthWatch

I’m 7 years old, walking hand-in-hand with my grandpa going to buy groceries for the week. It’s a hot summer day in Chicago and I know it’s going to rain later because the humidity was making grandpa’s joints ache and my stray hairs fly up.

We walk into the store, which is tucked into the corner of a quiet street, and the faint smell of medicinal herbs fills my lungs. I pass the crisp red apples, the Napa cabbage wrapped in cellophane, and the aisle filled with sweets and colorful packaging, my favorite. It’s an endless maze of goods. The woman behind the deli counter greets me with a gentle smile and hands me an aluminum box of freshly roasted chicken to put into our shopping basket. The red basket grows heavier as my grandpa fills it with vegetables, grains, and other pantry items. He even lets me pick out a juice box from the refrigerator at the front as a treat. We head to the checkout, place the items on the counter, and I watch the cashier swiftly punch in the prices.

My grandpa reaches for his wallet and hands a blue card to the cashier to swipe. He punches in a few numbers into a pin pad and a receipt pops up. It was an action I had seen him do the week before and the week before that. As we walk out of the store, I ask him, “Yéyé (Grandpa), where does the money in the blue card come from? Do you have a secret bank account?” He explains to me that this was our “food stamps” card and that the money came from the government to help us buy groceries. “So, the president buys our food? That’s so nice of him,” I reply and my grandpa chuckles. “Something like that.” I reach for the juice box in the plastic bag he was holding, and we head home.

These grocery trips with my grandpa are among some of the most cherished memories I have of my childhood. At 7 years old, I didn’t fully understand what food stamps (now called SNAP—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) were. I didn’t know why we had SNAP. I was young and unaware of my family’s financial situation. Although now, I realize how much my parents did to shield my brother and me from their financial worries. I didn’t know that SNAP aimed to help low income working families, seniors, and people with disabilities. I didn’t know that the program helped millions of people in America and that more than two-thirds of those recipients were families with children just like me.

As I got older, school and extracurriculars began to consume more hours out of my days and the pressure of getting into a good high school and college grew. I went on fewer and fewer grocery trips with my grandpa until eventually his joints could no longer handle the long walk. My mom got a new job that allowed her a day off and she did the grocery shopping while I was in school. I didn’t think much of it after that. It wasn’t until one night I overheard my parents talking about a letter they received in the mail notifying them that their SNAP benefits were being significantly cut. They tried to hide the worried looks on their faces and my heart shattered. The next morning, I helped them file an appeal.

I don’t have to justify this to anyone, but my parents are the hardest workers I know. They immigrated to America in their 30s, not knowing English or having had the chance at a formal education but worked 70 hours a week for two kids and two grandparents at home. My mom worked late into her pregnancy and returned to work a week after giving birth to my brother. My dad would often miss holidays and birthdays because he couldn’t get a day off. They sacrificed so much so that their children had the opportunity to live better lives than they had. So many families in this country share a similar narrative.

Many families and individuals on public assistance are either unable to work or are working jobs that aren’t paying them a sufficient living wage. I grew up constantly asking why my parents worked always at work and wishing that they were around more. It wasn’t that they weren’t working hard enough, but that they had to work twice as hard to overcome language barriers and systemic challenges.

I had the privilege then, and now, of not having to worry about going hungry or wondering when my next meal would be. Not every child in this country can say that. I have my parents to thank, but I also know that it would not have been possible without nutrition assistance programs. I would not be where I am today without programs like SNAP. Having access to an adequate, healthy diet meant that I could focus on school and all the positive parts of childhood that every child deserves.

SNAP is the largest program working to fight hunger in the country. The program has strict eligibility and work requirements for its recipients, many of which are low income families with children. It is an essential part of the social safety net for vulnerable families. For decades, SNAP has played a critical role in improving health and reducing food insecurity in families and communities across the country. Needless to say, the world right now is quite different than it was when I was 7. With food insecurity on the rise, as a result of millions of jobs and sources of income lost to the pandemic, more families than ever, especially those with children, need nutrition assistance. Yet, when I look to the federal government, I am saddened by their lack of response.

Back in May, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, which included major provisions to SNAP. It boosted benefits across the board by 15% and increased the minimum benefit for recipients. It also suspended the three-month time limit on benefits for jobless adults not raising minor children and those not complying with work requirements. These provisions would have provided much needed relief to individuals, families, and children across the nation. Unfortunately, due to opposition from the Senate, the bill has not been passed. The Senate recently introduced the HEALS Act, their version of a second coronavirus response package, which notably has no provisions to expand SNAP or nutrition assistance.

In the meantime, local communities, food banks, and shelters have stepped up to help reduce food insecurity. When the public schools I attended from pre-k to high school in Chicago closed in March due to coronavirus, CPS Grab & Go Meal Sites helped families with children at risk of going hungry by offering millions of grab-and-go meals. After the school year ended, the Summer Food Service Program made it possible for these meal sites to continue distributing food through the summer months. With many school systems going fully remote, including Chicago Public Schools, nutrition assistance is more important than ever to ensure that children can thrive at home.

Periods of food insecurity, however brief, can impact child health and wellness for years to come, and are guaranteed to exacerbate the disparities already experienced by low-income communities of color across the nation. The benefits of SNAP go beyond alleviating hunger and poverty. Children who receive SNAP do better in school, have better health outcomes and overall well-being. Expanding the SNAP program also increases its purchasing power which can boost retailers and local economies.

The unfortunate reality is that food insecurity has always been a big issue in America, not just during this pandemic. This must change. Food insecurity, especially amongst children, is a public health issue that can no longer get stuck in between the crossfires of political opinion. No child should go hungry and every child deserves to thrive and reach their greatest potential.

Whether you agree or disagree with my opinion, I encourage you to open your mind and empathize with the people that depend on programs like SNAP. Think about your neighbors and their children, your children’s classmates, the driver that delivered your take-out last night and their family. I guarantee you that someone you know in your life, no matter how tangentially, depends on some form of nutrition assistance. These are all people that need the extra help now more than ever.

If you’ve read this far and any part made you feel uncomfortable, use that as an opportunity for reflection. Take small steps to educate yourself on this issue. See that in order for families and their children to thrive, proper nutrition is indisputable. Recognize the magnitude of impact this program has on millions of children and adults in America. The expansion of nutrition assistance is a concrete action that millions of people need in this country right now. Use your voice. Find your elected officials and write to them. Encourage them to expand SNAP to cover more families during this time. Push them to make benefit levels match more closely to the cost of food in the long term. Elect people who will represent not just those like them or like you, but those who will represent and advocate for your friends, neighbors, and the voices that may not be heard. Use this time to help uplift others. The opportunity to make a choice is a privilege.

As for elected officials, I urge you to consider the importance of SNAP, to put yourselves in the shoes of those families with young children, the parents that must decide between paying rent or buying groceries for the week. You may not depend on public assistance, but you do hold the power to expand those programs and represent those that elected you. I encourage you to empathize, not only during this time of economic hardship, but beyond that.

At the end of the day, I can only speak to my experience as someone who depended on SNAP growing up. That 7-year-old girl would not have had the aspirations and dreams she did without the help of public assistance programs. I have had the opportunity to attend high school and college and accomplish all the things my parents could only dream of. While I hope that you will join me in advocating for nutrition assistance expansion, at the very least, I hope you will walk away from this piece having greater compassion for those currently in the greatest need.