SNAP: Just What the Doctor Ordered
By Helly Lee
We all know that food is a basic necessity in life. It provides the nutrition that helps us to grow, function and be healthy. Yet, for too many families across the U.S., ensuring access to food remains a challenge. In 2011, 33.5 million adults and 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households, meaning that they did not have access to enough food or that their choice of food was limited at least some time during the year. One third of food insecure households, 6.8 million households, experienced very low food security, meaning the food intake of some household members were reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted due to limited resources. This can have serious health implications.
A new report by the Food Research Action Center (FRAC) confirms that there are significant health consequences associated with living in poverty and being food insecure. Research has shown that those living in poverty experience disproportionately worse health outcomes and often live in environments that do not promote healthy lifestyles such as fewer walking trails, parks, and full service-grocery stores offering affordable foods as well as poor air and water quality. Children living in poverty and experiencing food insecurity are also more likely to experience serious health issues such as obesity, poor oral and dental health, asthma and poor academic outcomes, behavioral and emotional problems. In addition, childhood poverty can have lasting implications into adulthood, increasing health risks and economic struggles later in life.
Many households experiencing poverty are also food insecure, exacerbating the already existing struggles of low-income families. Food insecurity is associated with serious health problems including diabetes, heart disease, depression, obesity, and pregnancy complications. Many food-insecure households may be forced to choose food over other necessities such as medication or medical care, which may have especially significant impact on elders, children and those with serious health conditions. For some, adults in the household may limit or forgo their food intake at times so that their children may eat.
For millions of families struggling to put food on the table, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a lifeline, combating poverty and food insecurity and promoting healthy eating. This federal program, which provides assistance to low-income families to purchase food, had 47.5 million participants In October 2012 and lifted 3.9 million people above the poverty line in 2011.
SNAP also plays a critical role in improving the health outcomes of low-income families and children. In addition to reducing poverty and food insecurity, SNAP has been shown to protect against obesity, improve dietary intake and contribute to numerous positive health outcomes for low income individuals, families and children. However, even with its proven effectiveness, the program can be strengthened to improve its impact on the most vulnerable populations by providing more adequate benefits to improve food security and the health of recipients. The average monthly SNAP benefit per person is currently $133.85, or less than $1.50 per person, per meal. For most, this is not enough to last a full month and recipients must find alternative ways to meeting their nutritional needs. For example, in 2009, over half of households redeemed nearly all of their SNAP benefits in the first two weeks of the month.
Improving SNAP benefit levels would help the program to be more effective in ensuring nutrition access and improving the health of low-income Americans. More adequate benefits help to reduce food insecurity, improve dietary quality because individuals may purchase more nutrient-rich foods, and protect against obesity. A healthier America is not just for those who can afford it. We should ensure that everyone has access to the basic necessities that will improve their health outcomes.