Special Blog Post By Dr. Lisa Chamberlain, MD, MPH, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford

Deborah Frank, M.D., Boston Medical Center, and Lisa Chamberlain, M.D.

As a pediatrician, I know first-hand the importance of good nutrition for my patients and their families. Access to healthy food and an adequate diet supports proper growth and development and is one of the building blocks to a healthy, productive life. Unfortunately, many children in California don’t know where their next meal is coming from and over 2 million children are food insecure—meaning they live with constant uncertainty of whether they will be able access to the food they need to grow and thrive.

Over the years, I have encountered heartbreaking stories from the parents of my young patients who face food insecurity on a daily or episodic basis. One story that I’ll never forget was a visit with a mother, her 6 week old baby boy and her 4-year old son. I’d known the family for a long time, having cared for the 4 year old since birth, and they had never had any food insecurity. But when I dug a little deeper, the mother broke out in tears. She disclosed to me that she was currently hungry. Breastfeeding a new infant requires a lot of calories, and their family’s resources were stretched incredibly thin. She gave everything she had to both of her children and her husband, a day laborer who worked hard physically all day long. While both the 4-year old and infant were doing well she couldn’t help but worry about the day when they would all be hungry. When I hear such stories I feel both angry and frustrated – I do all I can to encourage my families to utilize as many existing programs and resources as they can, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, known as CalFresh in California) is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program and California’s first line of defense against hunger for many of my patients. Statewide, nearly three-quarters of SNAP participants are families with children, making SNAP a vital intervention to ensure our state’s most vulnerable families can access the food they need when they need it most.

Decades of research show SNAP’s ability to help struggling families buy the food they need, reduce food insecurity and help lift them out of poverty. Food insecurity increases the risk of poor health outcomes and is associated with higher healthcare costs. SNAP has been shown to reduce food insecurity by as much as 30% and is linked with improved nutrition and lower healthcare costs. Moreover, children who have access to SNAP fare better years later. I have seen first hand the positive impact of linking families to available programs and resources. When a family’s food insecurity needs are met, we are better able to address their child’s other health issues. For example, research shows that children with access to SNAP in early childhood show reduced rates of obesity and heart disease as well as improved educational outcomes.

In February, the President released his FY19 budget calling for a staggering $213 billion in cuts to SNAP—a nearly 30% cut to this vital program that will worsen hunger and health for our state’s low-income families and children. Key amongst those cuts was a proposal that would convert nearly half of SNAP household benefits into a food box—a measure that would negatively impact the overwhelming majority of SNAP households—including families with children—restricting their household purchasing power, increasing stigma and worsening overall dietary quality. An additional $85 billion in cuts to benefits and eligibility would worsen hunger and health by eliminating a state option that primarily supports our state’s working families by putting the connection to school meals at risk for children in these households—further compounding the issue of hunger at home and at school.

In the coming weeks, members of Congress will be called upon to reauthorize SNAP as a part of the Farm Bill. I urge all members of the California Congressional Delegation to work together to protect and strengthen this vital program for our state’s children and families. I believe that appropriate program investments like increasing the minimum benefit and improving benefit adequacy, not cuts, is the right strategy to improving the health and nutrition of our state’s children and families. Currently, 29 members of our state’s congressional delegation have co-sponsored The Closing the Meal Gap Act of 2017 (H.R. 1276) by Rep. Alma Adams, a bill that seeks to improve and strengthen SNAP. I ask all members of the California Congressional Delegation to co-sponsor H.R. 1276 and reject any cuts, block grants or structural changes in the Farm Bill, budget or any other proposal and urge our fellow healthcare partners to stand up in support of this vital program for the health of California’s families.