“How many words has she learned?” “Is he having trouble falling asleep?” “How is she interacting with other children?” In addition to the routine questions pediatricians ask parents during a child check-up, more often we must now add: “Do you have enough food to feed your family?”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), last year more than 3.9 million households with children were food insecure. With the United States’ child poverty rate at the highest it’s been in 20 years, it is all the more critical that Congress pass strong policies to protect children against hunger, improve their nutrition and help their families afford healthy food.
The Farm Bill includes funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), the nation’s largest child nutrition program that plays a crucial role giving families access to healthy foods. Nearly half of all SNAP participants are children. About 16 percent of SNAP benefits help children at pre-school age, a critical period of growth and development.
As a pediatrician, I have seen first-hand the effects of hunger and food insecurity on a child’s health. Childhood hunger can lead to stunted growth, lower immunity and increased risk of developing lifelong chronic health conditions. Children who are food insecure are more likely to have behavior problems, including lower attention spans and anxiety about where their next meal will come from. Indeed, it’s hard to concentrate on a math problem, read a difficult passage, or answer a teacher’s question if you’re hungry.
These realities do not compute with some Farm Bill proposals currently before Congress. One measure would cut $40 billion from SNAP over 10 years and cause 210,000 children in low-income families to lose those meals when their families lose SNAP benefits, because their eligibility for free school meals is tied to their receipt of SNAP. Such steep cuts to SNAP fail to meet children’s most basic health, nutrition and economic needs. Every adult was once a child, and the lifelong health impacts of food insecurity are well-documented. If Congress passes a Farm Bill that cuts the nation’s largest hunger safety net, any short-term budget savings will be curtailed by the long-term health and economic impact of chronic food insecurity. Our children deserve better.
America’s pediatricians call on Congress to pass a Farm Bill that invests in SNAP and protects against hunger, improves child nutrition and increases access to healthy food. It is time to reframe the conversation in Washington to echo those taking place in pediatricians’ offices across the country: “Do you have enough food to feed your family?” Until the answer is yes, our work is not done.
Perrin is president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.