Hunger Matters

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I thought that point was obvious. But apparently, there remains some debate because on November 1, 2013, the federal government effectively cut 5 billion dollars from the most powerful anti-hunger program in our country – food stamps (or SNAP as it is now called, which stands for Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program).

Here’s the quick history on the issue: During the recession, unemployment rates spiked. As family incomes fell, more families were at once eligible for food stamps and in need of extra money to put food on the table at the end of the month. To account for this increased need, the federal government issued a “stimulus package,” technically called the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Act did a number of things, one of which was to boost food stamp benefits. That boost expired on November 1.

The problem is, usage of the program (read: hunger) remains at an all-time high. And, the program works.

So let’s break that 5 billion dollar cut down to real numbers. For a family of 4, it means they will lose $36 dollars per month to cover their food costs. That is equivalent to losing 21 meals per month OR if you try to stretch the money out, having about $1.40 per person per meal, each month.

$1.40.

To put that number in perspective, in case $1.40 seems reasonable to you, the USDA has actually calculated how much it costs to eat on a super tight budget. They call that estimated value the Thrifty Food Plan. According to this bare-bones estimation, the cheapest, nutritious meal in America costs at least $1.70-$2.50 (the exact value depends on age and gender). For millions of American families, that gap between $1.40 and $1.70 will be the difference between being fed and going hungry in 2014.

In medicine, we refer to “being fed” as food security, or access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to maintain a healthy life. It is estimated that 1 in 6 Americans are food insecure. In 2012, that was about 49 million people. As of November 8, 2013, SNAP provided food for more than 47 million people, nearly half of whom were children.

Imagine I said 1 in 6 people have swine flu or the plague or a terrible form of cancer. There would be outrage. Frankly, we’d call it an epidemic, a real problem that someone has to stop! And yet, when nearly 20% of Americans do not have enough food on their table, there is debate about what should be done.

The answer is simple, #saveSNAP.

In 2011, it was estimated that SNAP fed 1 in 4 children in the US. Children need healthy food to build bones, grow their brain, and control their behavior. Try hurdling the achievement gap without breakfast. The challenge is obvious. People need food to live and succeed. As a society, we simply cannot tackle the major problems ahead of us if we fail to provide for the most basic needs of our country.

In the coming months, I will re-address this issue as the House and the Senate consider bills that would eliminate food stamp benefits for millions of Americans.

In the meantime, check out what pediatricians, community advocates, and I are working on to tackle hunger in the Bay Area.

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