Food is Medicine: For best results, follow dosing instructions

FFood is medicineood is medicine. You have likely heard that phrase before. It reminds us that what we nourish ourselves with is as important as most medicines we might take. But what if we can’t afford enough healthful food? That’s where the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) comes in – SNAP is like a medicine, helping to keep children and their families healthy. But also like medicine, the dose we take matters. Research has shown that the dose of SNAP is too low to provide enough healthful food to meet recommended dietary guidelines.  Many families run out of benefits before the month is over, which in turn negatively impacts their health.

Just over two years ago, as the days of October 2013 dwindled, we at Children’s HealthWatch braced for impact. On November 1, 2013, benefits for all households participating in SNAP were cut when the increase to monthly SNAP benefit allotments made under the American Recovery Reinvestment Act (ARRA, commonly known as the stimulus package) were prematurely rolled back. Congress had redirected the funds for the increase to other programs. We worried that families who rely on this essential medicine to feed the growing bodies and brains of their children would be negatively affected by the benefit cut.

I remember the fall of 2013 well. I sat in a critical care bay of a hospital emergency department and talked with a mother of a very young boy seeking care for his asthma. This young child’s asthma had landed him on the inpatient ward of this hospital many times and, on the day I met him, he would be admitted yet again. His mother did everything she could to protect him. She took a job near his child care so she could respond to emergencies quickly and she budgeted every last cent of income and work-supports from programs like SNAP and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) to make sure she and her son did not have to go without basic necessities, as she managed extra health care costs related to his asthma. Nearing the end of our conversation, I informed her of the impending cuts to SNAP benefits. This woman, who had remained calm and measured as she talked to me about the hardships in her life, broke down in tears at this news. SNAP was medicine for her sick child and suddenly the dose was going to be cut. She knew the loss in benefits would overwhelm her ability to afford enough food and would hurt her son’s health.

Children’s HealthWatch research confirmed this fear. Following the premature rollback of the ARRA boost to SNAP benefits, food insecurity rose; our analyses showed increases in both household food insecurity (inability to afford enough food for all family members) and child food insecurity (disruption in the quality or quantity of children’s meals).

This heartbreaking reality does not have to continue. This mother’s struggle and the hardships faced by many families of young children can be ameliorated through evidenced-based policy making that recognizes the powerful medicinal effects of SNAP. Improving benefit levels to meet nutritional needs is a step in the right direction toward improving the dose of SNAP. Recent research showed a decline in inpatient costs among Medicaid patients in Massachusetts during the period of the ARRA boost to SNAP benefits. This study showed that people with chronic illnesses, who are particularly sensitive to food insecurity, especially benefited from the boost to SNAP benefits as costs for this group fell.

The research on SNAP’s role in boosting food security and improving health is clear. We can and must do better for our nation’s children. Raising benefit levels to a dose that provides families with enough healthful food to feed their families will boost child health and set our country up for a more prosperous future.