It’s Time to Take Food Security Seriously
By Nancy Glick, SVP, MSL Washington, DC
Think about it: in 2016 alone, $135.5 billion worth of American agricultural products were exported around the world, according to estimates from the American Farm Bureau Federation. Yet, even as the U.S. remains the world’s largest food exporter, an estimated one in eight people – more than 41 million citizens – are food-insecure, meaning they do not have enough food to support a healthy life.
Today, food insecurity exists across the American landscape. The problem is evident in every county, affects both rural America (15% of the population) and urban areas (14.2% of the population) almost equally, and is a fact of life for almost 10% of suburban communities.
Even more troubling, more than 28 million adults and almost 13 million children who face food insecurity often skip meals, eat less than needed for adequate nutrition, and consume low-nutrient-density foods because they are cheap. This is especially the case for families living in the more than six million households that experience the most severe deprivation. Based on a survey the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted among the most food-insecure adults, 97% report running out of food before they have money to buy more, 95% cannot afford to buy balanced meals, 68% who say they were hungry didn’t eat because they couldn’t afford enough food, and 33% opted not to eat at all during one or more days to feed their children instead.
Who is paying the price for food insecurity in America?
We all are, and the amount is too high to ignore. Because the problem is directly linked to chronic disease across the lifespan and cognitive impairment in children, food insecurity costs the nation in excess of $160 billion annually due to the combination of lost economic productivity per year, more expensive public education, avoidable health care costs, and the cost of charity to keep families fed. Much of the cost is due to higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, and mental health problems in adults, excess weight gain and iron deficiency during pregnancy, and the inability of older adults to maintain independence with aging. Additionally, infants born to food-insecure mothers are smaller, sicker, and at greater risk of birth defects while children are more likely to be hospitalized, have health and behavioral problems, cognitive impairment, and poor academic performance.
What is the solution?
Food insecurity is a multidimensional problem and thus, there are differences of opinion on the most effective approaches. However, there is one area where anti-hunger and nutrition advocates agree: the need to strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) Program, formerly known as food stamps.
In existence for 54 years, SNAP helped 42 million Americans afford a nutritionally adequate diet in 2017 and is the sole food source for 8.5 million families. Moreover, research shows the SNAP program works. A 2013 study reported that participating in SNAP for 6 months reduced households’ food insecurity five to ten percentage points and decreased very low food insecurity by 5 to 6 percentage points. Another study found that SNAP benefits can reduce food insecurity among high-risk children by 20% and improve their overall health by 35%.
Reinforcing these findings, recent studies show SNAP improves long-term health and educational outcomes. For example, children benefitting from SNAP were found to be more likely to graduate high school, have less stunted growth in adulthood, and to be less likely to be obese or diagnosed with heart disease.
However, policymakers are now considering major changes to the SNAP program to reduce its cost. One of the most controversial is the proposal to cut $130 billion over 10 years by significantly limiting household benefits and holding back funds to give participants a monthly “Harvest Box” containing such foods as peanut butter, canned goods, cereal and shelf-stable milk.
While even proponents admit the Harvest Box idea has no chance of being implemented anytime soon, the proposed cuts to the SNAP program are unprecedented and by some estimates, could affect some 34 million people in 16 million households in 2019, or almost 90 percent of SNAP participants (81% of SNAP households). Thus, now is the time for effective advocacy and communications on the critical role of SNAP in addressing the basic nutritional needs of families. Policymakers must know that nutrition matters for all Americans.
A veteran of health and nutrition communications, advocacy and public policy, Nancy Glick is a senior vice president in MSL’s Washington office and serves as director of health affairs and advocacy for MSL’s Health Practice for North America.