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SNAP benefits will drop for millions of Americans as pandemic aid winds down

Originally posted on NPR.

SUMMERS: And she’s right to worry if you ask a number of experts, including pediatrician Megan Sandel.

MEGAN SANDEL: Think about what SNAP is. It’s the largest anti-hunger program in the United States. It’s an evidence-based tool for ensuring families put food on the table.

SUMMERS: She’s co-director of the Boston Medical Center’s Grow Clinic, which focuses on treating malnutrition issues in kids.

SANDEL: Let me just translate to you kind of who’s a typical family that I see. They’re working sometimes two jobs. They have this, you know, young child that’s not growing the way you would expect on the growth curve. And the mom will break down in tears and say, I just got my rent bill; landlord is increasing it; I can’t keep up. And now I know that there’s going to be one less tool in the toolbox to try and help this kid grow and get back on the growth curve.

SUMMERS: What makes children, young people, particularly vulnerable in moments such as this?

SANDEL: You know, you think about kind of what is really important around growth. In the first three years of life, you are in the most rapid growth period in terms of brain and body. And so when you’re missing out on key nutrition, it’s hard to catch up. It literally can be situations where we get to kids late and they’re starting to struggle in school or they’re not reading on time or other things.

And so we’ve seen this before. Our research showed that during the Great Recession in 2008, 2009, when there was a boost, they were able to see a benefit. And then when that boost was reduced, we saw kids stop growing, being in fair to poor health and their caregivers being in fair to poor health. So this is really a family issue.

SUMMERS: What types of long-term effects can hunger have on children as they grow?

SANDEL: So I like to think about it in three ways. I think we know that there are physical health implications. You’re not able to fight off viruses as well. You’re not going to be able to do as well with your immune system. And we also know that there can be developmental effects, right? You’re not walking on time. You’re not running on time. You’re not learning to read on time. And then I think mostly, there are huge mental health effects both for, again, kids and their parents – anxiety, depression, lost productivity at work, lost productivity in school.

And so I think the good news is there’s a solution, right? We know that SNAP needs to cover the cost of a healthy diet. It doesn’t really do that now, and it’s not going to do it if you end up rolling it back further. But Congress is going to take up the Farm Bill. There are ways in which you could really start to see covering the real cost of food, and we could see the benefits of that over the next generations.

SUMMERS: I wonder, what do you recommend for parents and other caregivers who might be really struggling and be harmed acutely by these latest cuts, who are being asked, in effect, to do more with a lot less?

SANDEL: Yeah. It is really an ecosystem approach. I work at Boston Medical Center, and we partner with our Greater Boston Food Bank. We are able to provide emergency food. We can lean in ourselves. It really is that we need to partner with policymakers on the federal and the state level to really bring additional resources. So families should know there are great safety net hospitals and great safety net community health centers and food banks out there. But we really need to focus not just on the short-term solution but the long-term solutions to make sure families aren’t choosing between rent, medicine and food.

SUMMERS: If you could enact any law or program or structure right now that would have a meaningful impact on fighting child hunger, where would you begin?

SANDEL: You know, the Farm Bill is a huge, huge bill that is considered every five years. And there is a real opportunity for Congress to strengthen and improve SNAP; not just to roll it back, but to actually look at it as this evidence-based solution to reducing food insecurity and promoting health. And the way you do that is actually to boost SNAP benefits so they reflect the real cost of a healthy diet across the country. My counseling to families to have fruits and vegetables and, you know, dairy and eggs are meaningless if their actual, you know, ability to purchase them is reduced. And so there are ways in which we could actually use the pandemic-era boost as an example of how we improve the program and really create health equity for children and adults across the country.

SUMMERS: Dr. Megan Sandel, co-director of the Boston Medical Center’s Grow Clinic. Thank you so much.

SANDEL: Thanks, Juana.