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Putting a price tag on childhood hunger

Putting a price tag on childhood hunger
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It’s hard to put a price tag on hunger, but a new report does just that: $2.4 billion. In 2016, that was the cost in Massachusetts alone for additional healthcare, special education, and lost work time related to food insecurity.

This validates what I see regularly as a pediatrician.

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I’m a street doctor in Austin and Central Texas. I care for high-risk and homeless children living in shelters and alleyways, and I see firsthand hunger’s effects on their health and learning. Whether it is a chronic condition like diabetes or a developmental delay affecting success at school, food insecurity has devastating consequences for kids.

 

Parents strapped for funds are often forced to make dire decisions. One family diluted their newborn’s formula with extra water to try to make it last until their next paycheck, which resulted in a seizure and extended ICU stay due to low sodium in the baby’s blood.

In another instance, parents delayed bringing their 4-year-old to see me because they were used to their hungry children complaining about stomach pain. But in this case, the pain was a tumor, and the delayed cancer diagnosis put the little boy’s life at risk. Fast forward to treatment: his malnutrition meant less effective chemo and a longer, more costly road to a cure.

Families with children have higher rates of food insecurity than families without children. The younger a household’s children, the more likely the family is food insecure. But this condition isn’t always apparent to the untrained eye. The child dealing with an empty fridge at home could be the same child sitting next to yours at school, or playing with yours on the playground.

Fortunately, health care systems and providers have increasingly recognized the intersection between hunger and health and their role in identifying and addressing food insecurity in patients.

In my practice, I screen for food insecurity as I do any other vital sign because I know the long-term effects of that condition on children’s health, school success, and lifetime earnings.

If food insecurity costs Massachusetts $2.4 billion, I can only imagine what we are spending in a state as big as Texas.

When a health care provider determines a patient faces food insecurity, they can refer them to emergency food organizations, such as food banks, so patients have access to healthy food and federal nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Children can be connected to important school nutrition programs, such as the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. And other food needs can be met with distribution of vouchers or discounts for produce at retailers or farmers’ markets.

These resources are critical for our children, and are much less costly than treating the health consequences of hunger. In fact, federal nutrition programs have great returns on investment.

For example, early access to SNAP among pregnant mothers and children in their early years improves birth outcomes and long-term health as adults. Elderly SNAP participants are less likely than similar nonparticipants to forgo their full-prescribed dosage of medicine due to cost. And low-income adults participating in SNAP incur about $1,400 less, or nearly 25 percent, in medical care costs per year than low-income non-participants. If you have heart disease, it’s over $4,100 less.

SNAP has great benefit to local economies, too. Every $5 spent in SNAP benefits generates $9 in economic activity in sectors such as agriculture, transportation, and retail.

In short, SNAP is a prescription for good health. But as any physician knows, medicines only work if the dose is right and the pharmacy is able to fill the prescription.

While Congress is considering SNAP in the upcoming farm bill, it is important to maintain the program’s structure and funding. Making funding cuts will only hurt an already vulnerable population and decrease their access to healthy food. Without SNAP, the children I see in my practice would have fewer opportunities to thrive and grow into healthy, productive adults.

Dr. Michael K. Hole is an assistant professor of Pediatrics & Population Health at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. A pediatrician and social entrepreneur, he is developing products and services to reduce U.S. child poverty.