Or in terms a capitalist should appreciate: does the investment in children's nutrition have a positive return? If food benefits are reduced through sequester or legislation, is there negative impact on children? Or is it one more item we can cut from the federal budget with no harm?
Yesterday I wrote about food stamps, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.) It's easy to see that at the individual level, the benefit can make all the difference in an individual's health and well-being. Even at an average benefit per person of only $4.45 per day, that can determine whether a person eats or does not eat. It is more difficult to prove the benefits of the nation's investment in the program, from the standpoint of societal well-being.
For an adult, food insecurity may create transitory problems. But childhood hunger and food insecurity can have a lifelong impact due to their greater vulnerability.
How prevalent is childhood food insecurity? From Feeding America:
- 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households in 2011.[i]
- 20% or more of the child population in 36 states and D.C. lived in food insecure households in 2010. The District of Columbia (30.7%) and Oregon (29.0%) had the highest rates of children in households without consistent access to food.[ii]
- In 2010, the top five states with the highest rate of food insecure children under 18 are the District of Columbia, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, & Florida.[iii]
- In 2010, the top five states with the lowest rate of food insecure children under 18 are North Dakota, New Hampshire, Virginia, Minnesota, & Massachusetts. [iv]
[references at the linked website]
Good nutrition early in life helps create a foundation for health, education, and later economic viability. The lack of high-quality food can have negative impacts on all these areas. According to the American Psychological Association,
The first three years of a child’s life are a period of rapid brain development. Too little energy, protein, and nutrients during this sensitive period can lead to lasting deficits in cognitive, social, and emotional development. [emphasis added]
Hunger reduces a child’s motor skills, activity level, and motivation to explore the environment. Movement and exploration are important to cognitive development, and more active children elicit more stimulation and attention from their caregivers, which promotes social and emotional development.
A community sample that classified low-income children ages six to twelve as “hungry”, “at-risk for hunger”, or “not hungry” found that hungry children were significantly more likely to receive special education services, to have repeated a grade in school, and to have received mental health counseling than at-risk-for-hunger or not-hungry children.
In this same study, hungry children exhibited 7 to 12 times as many symptoms of conduct disorder (such as fighting, blaming others for problems, having trouble with a teacher, not listening to rules, stealing) than their at-risk or not-hungry peers.
The research shows the negative impact of hunger. It is harder to tease out the impact, positive or negative, of food benefits, including SNAP, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.
Consider a couple of reasons why it is hard to provide evidence of efficacy. First, there is no ethical way to identify children who qualify for food benefits, and then to create a control group of those who do not receive them. We cannot compare those who do receive benefits against those who do not in a meaningful way.
Second, most available data is collected from survey participants. Survey participation (by the adult/guardian) is voluntary, participation in food programs is under-reported, and diet/nutritional data is suspect to some degree due to self-reporting.
New research by Brent Kreider, Professor of Economics at Iowa State University, pushes through some of these problems. His methodology uses CDC data from the NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) to look at the impact of SNAP on childhood health. His research appears in the Journal of the American Statistical Association.
A report from Futurity quotes Kreider about the importance of the research. According to Kreider,
nearly half of all American children are expected to receive SNAP assistance at some point in their childhood.
The NHANES data includes the results from both interviews and physical exam. A difficulty of the research is that children receiving SNAP benefits are in generally poorer health than their peers who have food security. A reasonable question is that of cause and effect: does receipt of SNAP lead to poorer health? Or are conditions of food insecurity, which leads to SNAP receipt, a causative factor of poorer health?
And the question at hand, does SNAP have a positive impact on children's health?
In a word, YES.
Again, Futurity quotes Kreider:
“Our methods do not allow us to pinpoint exact estimates of how SNAP affects children’s health, but we can provide informative ranges on average causal effects of the program,” he says.In other words, even with the limitations of the data, Kreider and his research partners found that SNAP provides positive health benefits for children.
Despite the inherent limitations of the data, they found that the program has been effective in improving the well-being of children.
The researchers also found evidence that SNAP reduces the prevalence of childhood obesity and anemia, but those results were not statistically significant.
These health benefits have individual and national impact. Hungry children have higher health costs, education deficits, and poorer preparation for the workplace. We all carry the burden through higher immediate costs and lower potential economic growth.
The impact of SNAP and other food programs is real and positive, both today and in the future. The lack of a new farm bill, which funds the food programs through the USDA, is not tenable in the long term.
Please contact your senators and representative to demand passage of a new, five-year farm bill that fully supports nutritional assistance programs. These programs provide a safety net for children and adults in need, and they also support farm producers through the demand for food.