Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity will be running a series of commentaries in the summer of 2012 on the fight to end childhood hunger in America.
This commentary is the third installment in the series, which is entitled “Ending Childhood Hunger in America.”
Today, more than 16 million children in America live their lives under the looming shadow of hunger. As a nation, we have a very simple question to ask ourselves: Will we stand up for these kids and make sure they get the food they need or will we stand by silently while even heavier burdens are shifted onto their young shoulders?
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a critical lifeline for millions of families struggling to make ends meet. Over 46 million Americans rely on SNAP benefits to provide basic nutrition for their families and nearly half of all participants are kids under the age of 18. Yet, Congress is seriously considering slashing funds for this important program.
Every Farm Bill reauthorization brings out some of the nation’s most powerful lobbyists to ensure that the voices of the companies and interests they represent are not only heard but dominate the debate. This time is no different. But, over the past few weeks, Share Our Strength has sought out some of the voices rarely heard in the corridors of Congress—the families who experience firsthand the life-changing benefits of a food and nutrition assistance program like SNAP.
These intimate glimpses into their lives are as powerful as any statistics. What we see is a struggle - often by young, single moms or military families - to care for those who depend on them. The letters we’ve received convey both the temporary nature of the assistance and the lifelong gratitude it engenders.
In one letter, Kimberly from Indiana wrote, “My experience with food stamps began in May of 1994, and it should have begun much earlier. I have five sons, and my husband was in the U.S.M.C.. he was in the military drawdown after the Gulf War, so our civilian life began March 08, 1992. We went through a lot of hardship trying to be self-reliant, and in the end it did not work. I was desperate, and applied for food stamps. My family began to eat well. Their health increased. They became carefree, not having to be hungry. I am grateful to my government for helping us when we needed it.”
Stories like Kimberly’s help remind us that long-term economic strength cannot be achieved by short-changing education, health, or nutrition.
Lack of an adequate, nutritious diet during childhood hinders educational achievement. Kids with growling stomachs don’t learn as much or as fast as their peers because chronic under-nutrition impairs cognitive development. In addition, hungry children are 1.4 times as likely to repeat a school grade.Studies also show that when kids get the healthy food they need, classroom behavior improves and test scores rise.
Hunger also takes a toll on health. Children who lack access to enough healthy food simply don’t feel well. They suffer from more headaches, stomach aches, and colds. When kids do get the food they need, studies show they are hospitalized less frequently and have fewer developmental problems.
The good news is that even short-term assistance can prevent these problems. In many cases, families only need the help of SNAP for a few months to regain their footing. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, new SNAP recipients stay on the program an average of eight to ten months. These short periods demonstrate the program’s effectiveness as transitional assistance for those falling on hard times.
Tracy from Ohio shared her experience with the temporary safety net that food stamps provided when her family fell on hard financial times, writing, “I am now 61 years old but when I was a teen my parents died and I became pregnant. My daughter and I used food stamps as I finished school and then became employed. She is now raising our grandchildren after she attained her college degree with high honors and I am happily married for many years. I am forever grateful that we had that help when it was so necessary if I were to succeed and she was to thrive in preschool.”
Beyond these moving stories, it’s worth mentioning that, in addition to the benefits SNAP provides directly to children and families, the program also stimulates economic activity in communities across the country. Every five dollars in new SNAP benefits generates nine dollars in total community spending. Additionally, SNAP has proven itself a program that is responsive to the economic climate, especially in recent years. As unemployment numbers grew during the recession, SNAP responded quickly and provided benefits to families facing job loss, often due to layoffs or budget cuts. Now, as the economy slowly begins to recover, SNAP participation is expected to decline to nearly pre-recession levels.
We recognize the challenges presented by the current fiscal environment. But slashing funding for SNAP would only further devastate the economic well-being and health of our country.
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Billy Shore is the founder and chief executive officer of Share Our Strength.
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.