Thursday, May 16, 2013

How Family Food Security Supports the Economy and Children's Health

By supporting children’s healthy development policymakers help to provide the foundation needed for children to grow into thriving adults.  A critical aspect of child health is food security.  Several federal and state programs are aimed at ensuring children and families have access to adequate nutrition.  These investments often also have benefits for the economy. Programs like WIC, Healthy Food Financing, School Nutrition Programs and SNAP are all aimed at ensuring food security for poor and low-income families.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a vital lifeline for families; about 75% of households receiving SNAP benefits include at least one child, senior or person with a disability. Over 25% of all US children received SNAP benefits in 2011 according to USDA data.

On November 1, 2013, every U.S. family receiving SNAP benefits will have those benefits cut, making it more difficult for over 47 million people to buy food. On that day the 2009 increase to SNAP that occurred through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will expire, and additional cuts will likely be included in the new farm bill. On Tuesday the Senate Agriculture Committee passed a $4.1 billion cut to SNAP benefits over the next 10 years as part of its version of the bill, which would likely result in an average cut of $90 per month for nearly 500,000 households. The House Agriculture Committee passed its version of the farm bill on Wednesday, making even more drastic cuts totaling $20.5 billion over the next decade.

 Prior to the 2009 increase through ARRA, the level of SNAP benefits per family was so low that receipt of the benefits had ‘no detectable impact on child health’ according to a study by Children’s Health Watch. Following the increase, the study found that children in families receiving SNAP benefits were significantly more likely to be ‘well’ -- not overweight or underweight, in good health, developing normally for their age, and having never been hospitalized, compared to children whose families were eligible but did not receive the benefit. Another study by Children’s Health Watch found that when families’ SNAP benefits are reduced, young children are more likely to ‘be food insecure (a known child health risk), be in poor health and have developmental delays than young children in families whose benefits do not decrease’. The study also found that families whose SNAP benefits were reduced were more likely to forego needed health care due to inability to afford care, be food insecure and struggle to pay for heat and utilities than families whose benefits do not decrease.

In addition to the important impact SNAP benefits can have on child health, SNAP also has important economic stimulus effects. Research by the USDA indicates that every dollar of federally-funded SNAP benefits generates between $1.73 and $1.79 in economic activity in industries such as agriculture, retail, wholesale-transportation and food processing. SNAP benefits play an important role in sustaining demand for groceries and preventing job losses in these industries. A study by the Center for American Progress found that for every $1 billion cut from SNAP, 13,718 jobs would be lost. 

Another change in the House version of the farm bill is the elimination of 'broad-based categorical eligibility', which gives states the option of allowing recipients of certain other public benefits to qualify automatically for SNAP. Broad-based categorical eligibility prevents recipients who have already met financial eligibility requirements from needlessly going through the financial need determination process again. Since 2009, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service has strongly recommended that states adopt broad-based categorical eligibility to reduce state workloads, more efficiently helping families in need. Eliminating this option will increase barriers to receiving SNAP for eligible families, placing young children at greater risk for being significantly underweight for their age and living in households that are food and housing insecure. 

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) addresses this critical issue by providing additional support for nutrition and food security among women and young children; nearly 9 million women and children are served by this highly successful program. However, uncertainty about the future of WIC funding presents a challenge for states in ensuring that all eligible applicants are able to participate. Research conducted by the National WIC Association found that many state and local agencies have consolidated or closed clinics, laid-off staff or reduced their service hours in preparation for expected funding reductions due to sequestration. The research findings indicate that this ‘streamlining’ has negatively impacted service delivery resulting in eligible women and children being placed on waiting lists and ‘negatively affecting nutrition education and breastfeeding support’ for participants. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the President’s budget request of $7.142 billion for WIC would be sufficient to serve all eligible applicants, but that a lower level of funding might prevent eligible women and children from benefitting from the program.

School nutrition programs provide an additional boost to food security for children from low-income households. In 2011, the National School Lunch program provided low-cost or free lunches to over 31 million children and breakfast to over 12 million children every school day.   However, if broad-based categorical eligibility is eliminated, many children who currently received free school meals based on their family’s SNAP eligibility would be affected.  According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, an estimated 210,000 children would lose access to free school lunches and breakfasts if broad-based categorical eligibility were eliminated.

Even if families have the benefits they need to provide their children with good nutrition, many low-income families still live in ‘food deserts’ where access to grocery stores and farmers markets selling fresh, nutritious food is very difficult. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative promotes good nutrition and economic development in under-served communities based on a model pioneered by the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Initiative, a public-private partnership that opened or improved 88 grocery stores and increased access to healthy food for 400,000 residents in just five years. The initiative also helped to retain or create 5,000 jobs in such communities throughout the state. For a case study of the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Initiative please visit 

In light of these impending cuts, state policymakers may want to consider planning for how to provide SNAP recipients with information about the changes and how to manage an increase in client inquiries about the reduction in benefits. If the option of broad-based categorical eligibility is also eliminated, states may be faced with an increase in workloads involved in completing financial need determination separately for each program.

State policymakers may also want to explore expansion of state and local-level initiatives to promote childhood nutrition and health such as increased state funding for farmers’ markets, school nutrition education and Farm to School initiatives as well as fresh food initiatives inspired by the Pennsylvania model.

Access to healthy, affordable food is fundamental element to ensuring children are healthy and thrive.  For state-based policy strategies to ensure that children are healthy please visit PolicyforResults for strategies to improve access to affordable healthy food and to support healthy school initiatives.   For more on collaborating around results and results-based policy strategies, visit 

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