Pediatricians Speak Out About Food Insecurity

Who knows more about kids’ health than pediatricians?  The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) recently made a strong statement about the link between hunger and children’s health. The AAP called for pediatricians to take action by screening patients and their families for food insecurity and advocating for increased access to nutrition programs. Following the release of AAP’s policy statement, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack spoke at the annual AAP conference, highlighting the importance of child nutrition programs and noting that more than 15 million American children live in food-insecure households without consistent access to sufficient food.

As outlined in the policy statement, food insecurity is linked with lower cognitive indicators, dysregulated behavior, and emotional distress among children of all ages. The statement also notes that households with children are nearly twice as likely to be food insecure as households without children and that the inability to consistently provide food creates stress in families, contributing to depression, anxiety, and toxic stress.

Pediatricians are uniquely positioned to screen families for food insecurity and connect them with resources.  As the AAP policy statement points out, pediatricians should also play a role in advocacy to ensure “access to effective assistance programs is expanded rather than reduced.” It’s exciting to see AAP encourage pediatricians to advocate for systemic improvements to increase children’s access to nutritional food. For example, the AAP policy statement includes advocating for Express Lane Eligibility (ELE), which automatically enrolls children in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) based on eligibility for other programs, such as free school lunch.

States and advocates, including pediatricians, have been working to reduce the number of uninsured children by improving access to Medicaid. These efforts have been incredibly successful; the rate of children without health insurance is at an historic low. Unfortunately, nutrition assistance has received less attention. Too many children still suffer from food insecurity even though their families are likely eligible to receive food through SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. For example, in Colorado, while just 5.6 percent of children lack health insurance coverage—a significant improvement due to years of advocacy and systems change—nearly one in 5 children (19 percent) experience food insecurity.

Seeing the disparity between children’s access to health care and their access to food, pediatricians are well positioned to speak out about improving access to programs like SNAP and WIC. We applaud the AAP for encouraging its members to get involved. And we encourage other advocates to engage with pediatricians in their states. Together, we can give kids what they need to develop to their full potential.