WIC and SNAP Feed Our Future

Toddler eatingWhen I first met Children HealthWatch’s founder Dr. Frank, I asked her what horrible disease was causing “failure to thrive” in the children she saw in her clinic—some crazy intestinal disease?  I was appalled by her answer then and still am now—that her patients do not have access to enough nutritious food to keep them healthy. At that time, I had no idea there were hungry children in Boston and I thought it must be a temporary problem. I believed that surely children living in the greatest country on Earth would have enough to eat.  Since then, I have learned a lot about hunger and how broadly it affects our children.  I have been dismayed to see that our government still fails to take the simple and cost-effective steps needed to make sure all children have enough nutritious food to stay healthy.  I have seen that the role of Children’s HealthWatch as an advocate for young children’s health is crucial to changing the current reality.

Hunger is a health issue

While we no longer see large numbers of stunted, apathetic children with swollen stomachs and dull eyes in this country, researchers at Children’s HealthWatch are documenting less visible, but still very significant, signs of food insecurity.  We now know that young children who do not have enough nutritious food to eat when they are young are more likely to be in poor health, including being hospitalized, than other children.  We also know that food insecurity (not having enough nutritious food to eat) can damage children’s brain development.  Even before kindergarten, food-insecure children often are cognitively, emotionally and physically behind their food-secure peers.  Children’s HealthWatch research has also shown that adequate funding for nutrition assistance may have implications beyond decreasing hunger, potentially increasing families’ ability to maintain stable housing (housing security) as well.

Food is medicine

We also know that children in families participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) fare better years later than children in families who likely qualify, but are not participating in SNAP. A 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research study showed that adults who had access to SNAP as young children reported better health and had lower rates of metabolic syndrome (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes).  Further, women who had access to SNAP as young children reported improved economic self-sufficiency (as measured by employment, income, poverty status, and high school graduation).  SNAP is a powerful vaccine that improves health and prevents disease.

Our grandparents knew intuitively what study after study shows – food is medicine.  Providing all of our children with access to nutritious food enables them to become healthier, higher-achieving adults.  Unfortunately, progress toward that goal appears to be reversing.  In March 2015 Congress proposed a budget that makes severe cuts to the programs that feed young children, including SNAP and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).  Given that even the current SNAP benefit levels are not sufficient for many families to buy enough nutritious food for a quality diet, the proposed cuts are even more of a threat to public health.

SNAP supports health, but the dose is too low

Children’s HealthWatch is investigating the effects on children’s health of recent cuts made in November 2013 when the 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary benefit increase was terminated. These data show that the cuts had significant negative effects on food security for young children, which impacts the health of children. A family of four saw their benefits cut back by about $36 per month.  This may not seem like a significant amount to some, but for many families, it’s enough to make the difference between children who go to bed hungry and children who go to bed after a nutritious dinner.

I would like to believe that the number of families with children who need SNAP and WIC benefits has gone down dramatically and that very few will be impacted by the proposed cuts, but that is not the case. The economic recovery left many behind, including children.  There are still many families with low incomes who need assistance to buy food. Since many are families with an adult who works already, it is not likely that these families will be able to add work as a means to compensate for the proposed cuts.  Instead, thousands of children and adults will have to go hungry and we all will suffer the consequences.

In the 15 years since I first met Dr. Frank, I have often wondered how it could be that our public officials seemingly fail to consider the data and adequately address this significant public health issue. I do not believe that these officials are mean-spirited people who do not care about the health of children.  Instead, I have come to the conclusion that they are not aware of the toll that food insecurity takes on children and on our whole society.  Research shows us how pernicious food insecurity is and how broad and long-lasting the damage from it is.  We need to convey the implications of these findings to policy makers and to the general public. We have to communicate the benefits of funding SNAP and WIC at the right level to ensure the health of all children.

SNAP and WIC work just like any other vaccine—when given at the correct dose, they treat and prevent threats to good health. The potential cuts to nutrition programs are a serious danger to children’s physical and mental health and to their health as adults.  Our children need nutritious diets to grow brains and bodies that can be socially and emotionally adept, focus in school and gain the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the workforce and contribute to our nation’s economic prosperity.

That is the logical argument, and it is a good one, but equally important to me is what I know is right.  Feeding children is the right thing to do.  How can those of us who live in one of the richest countries on Earth live with ourselves if we fail to fight to ensure that all children have access to enough nutritious food?  We have all been moved when we see images of hungry children in other countries.  But what about hungry children in our own country?  Do we even know they are there?  Who among us could knowingly look at a hungry child and not feed him or her?  You and I alone cannot feed all of our country’s children.  We need our representatives in Congress to put aside ideological barriers and work together to fund the programs that feed children.  It’s as simple as that.

While the doctors at Children’s HealthWatch continue their work to explain the food vaccine and its benefits to policy makers, I encourage you to support them, along with others doing this important work.  It only takes a minute to get involved in legislative advocacy efforts surrounding these topics.  Check out the outreach efforts of the Food and Research Action Center, Feeding America, and Coalition on Human Needs, all of whom cite Children’s HealthWatch research.

Shelly Dews Chigier is a member of the Children’s HealthWatch Advisory Board.