What if… the United States decided to proactively alleviate food insecurity?

What if… the Unites States decided to proactively alleviate food insecurity?

Finally, after years of sluggish, uncertain growth following the Great Recession, the United States economy appears to have surged in 2015. Two recently released annual reports from the USDA on household food security and the Census Bureau on income, poverty and health insurance tell the story. In 2015, the number of American households with consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living increased significantly from 85 percent in 2014 to 87.3 percent in 2015. Additionally, millions of American households saw their real median income increase by 5.2 percent between 2014 and 2015 while the official poverty rate decreased 1.2 percentage points.

As encouraging as this news is, let’s be clear – there were still more food insecure households in 2015 than there were in 2007, prior to the Great Recession. And a typical family’s income, adjusted for inflation, remains lower now than it was before the Great Recession. But at least it appears we’re on the right track; and America’s slow jog to prosperity has become a manageable trot. Now is the time to come to the table and consider – what would it take for the American economy to break into a full sprint?

In our second brief in the ‘What If …?’ Series, “A Treatment Plan for Hunger: SNAP, WIC, and the Community Eligibility Provision” we asked what if we optimized key child nutrition programs to reduce food insecurity? Through innovative simulation modelling techniques we explored how reasonable policy improvements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) have the potential to significantly reduce the number of families experiencing food insecurity.

What we found was encouraging:

  • If SNAP benefits were increased by basing the calculation on the Low-Cost Food Plan (reflecting the real cost of a healthy diet), SNAP-participant families with children would have an 8 percent increase in purchasing power for food.
    • This would result in half-a-million currently food-insecure people living in families with children participating in SNAP becoming food secure.
  • If WIC age-eligibility were increased to age 6, 2.2 percent of newly eligible 5 year olds’ families would increase their food purchasing power into the next higher income to poverty category.[1]
    • This change would enable 13,208 people, including 3,221 five year olds, in WIC-eligible food-insecure families to become food secure.
  • If NSLP’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) remains intact, food security will likely continue to expand among low-income school students. CEP enabled 13.4 percent of all children whose family food purchasing power was increased by their participation in the NSLP at schools implementing CEP to shift into a higher income to poverty category in 2014.
    • CEP provided between 122,900 to 154,700 students living in food-insecure families with access to nutritious foods, boosting their families’ abilities to purchase additional meals: making nearly one-quarter of a million people food secure.

Even though these are conservative estimates of the impact of these policies (focused only on families with children and only on shifting to full food security, not reduced severity of food insecurity), they also represent realistic solutions that will make a meaningful difference for millions of families. Congress is currently considering changes to the Child Nutrition Act, which would directly impact WIC and NLSP. Strengthening WIC and NSLP in this year’s reauthorization of child nutrition programs would further the nation’s progress on reducing poverty and food insecurity. Additionally, strengthening SNAP would impact millions of people nationwide, moving many into food security.

What’s more, the cost of these improvements to our social infrastructure would be offset by their savings in preventing future health care costs. Previous research from Children’s HealthWatch showed food insecurity among families with children under age 4 cost the United States $1.2 billion in health related expenditures in 2015 dollars. The choice is clear: we can either choose to pay now and alleviate food insecurity while improving the health of Americans, or choose to pay later and be left with the disappointing outcomes with which we are already too familiar. We can get this right by addressing it head on. We’re headed in the right direction – we just have to make the decision to act.

[1] The ratio of income to poverty is a family’s or person’s income divided by their poverty threshold.