Good nutrition is both sound economic policy and effective preventive medicine: Guest viewpoint

Hunger is a health issue. Children’s HealthWatch has interviewed parents of nearly 16,000 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers seeking care at Boston Medical Center. In 2015 alone, they found that 32.2% of BMC families – nearly twice the national average – are “food insecure”, meaning they struggle to afford enough food throughout the month. People who are food insecure may run out of food, skip meals, eat limited and unbalanced diets, or go hungry because they do not have enough money to buy all the food they need. Children from food insecure homes are more likely than their peers to experience ill health, delayed development, anemia, and costly hospitalizations. Families of children with special health care needs, like diabetes or cancer, have greatly increased difficulties in properly managing their illnesses.

The health problems created by hunger can be prevented. Children whose families receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are less likely to have anemia, depression, low body weight (a sign of under-nutrition), and developmental delays than children whose families are eligible for but do not receive SNAP. A study published January 2016 in the American Journal of Public Health found that, when Massachusetts residents had access to increased SNAP amounts during the Great Recession, Medicaid cost growth across the state slowed significantly due to reduced hospital admissions. Simply put, SNAP is good medicine.

Food insecurity created by the “SNAP Gap,” the difference between the number of people receiving MassHealth who are likely SNAP-eligible and the number of people actually receiving SNAP, imposes an unnecessary burden of illness on too many Massachusetts residents. It also imposes avoidable costs to the tax payer funded health care system. As the Baker Administration has highlighted, Massachusetts has the potential to make public programs work “smarter and better,” improving lives and decreasing costs.

Massachusetts leads the nation in health insurance enrollment. We can increase the number of eligible low-income residents getting SNAP by creating a common application that allows residents to sign up for SNAP when they apply for or renew MassHealth. Seventeen other states have already developed coordinated applications for SNAP and Medicaid.

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