Bestselling author Wes Moore brings more food to (sitting, from left) Marcus Watson, 11, Joseph Sneed, 4, Dayseon Sneed, 9 and Nysheera Sneed, 7 during a free community dinner at Baltimore Dream Center, a ministry of Pathway Church of God.
Bestselling author Wes Moore brings more food to (sitting, from left) Marcus Watson, 11, Joseph Sneed, 4, Dayseon Sneed, 9 and Nysheera Sneed, 7 during a free community dinner at Baltimore Dream Center, a ministry of Pathway Church of God. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

As family physicians in Baltimore, we see the links between food and health every day. Children in families that are “food insecure” are at increased risk for poor health outcomes and school performance, as well as behavioral issues.

Toward the end of last summer, a 12-year-old boy came in for a well-child exam with his mom. He was shy and well-appearing, except for a significant weight gain. His mom had meant to sign him up for a sports camp, however, the associated expenses and working multiple jobs with erratic hours had made it difficult to do so. He reported that he spent most of the day at home or hanging out with friends. While discussing his weight, his mom said she tried to make sure that there were left-overs for him to fill up on during the day, but they may not be what he usually likes to eat.

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Nevertheless, by the end of each month, as her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) ran out, her budget did not allow for a constantly well-stocked fridge. He, in turn, was well-versed in finding foods from cheaper sources — whether it was the corner store chips or a neighbor’s pop-tarts. With some coaxing from his concerned mom, he smiled as he shared his favorite choice: fast-food chicken nuggets (especially when he could get 10 pieces for a dollar). During those weeks when she could not afford to provide healthier options for him at home, she often turned a blind eye to his unhealthy habits.

SNAP benefits vital to low-income communities

The proposal to replace SNAP with “America’s harvest box,” a box of “shelf-stable” canned and boxed goods, for those households receiving over $90 per month, is perplexing and concerning to say the least.

Any parent would feel the stress of not being able to provide enough for their children. Yet this is what many Maryland parents struggle with when they have to stretch their SNAP dollars during the summer months. In our clinics, we strive to discuss how we can help them with these challenges. It is not unusual to find that social determinants of health, such as affordability of fresh groceries and summer activities, are key drivers for these concerning health outcomes.

Too many of our young patients experience limited access to healthy food, a condition known as “food insecurity,” that worsens during school breaks, when low-income families who typically rely on free and reduced-priced school meals no longer have access to that critical support. As a result, families often struggle to meet basic needs, including providing enough healthy food.

Research confirms what our patients’ experience — family expenses rise more than $300 a month during the summer, putting an additional strain on already tight budgets. The federal Summer Food Service Program, also known as the Summer Meals Program, exists to address this gap. However, the program only meets a fraction of the need due to barriers such as transportation.

We are thrilled to be a part of a new initiative to address this public health threat: The Summer SNAP for Children program, which will be in place to support thousands of low-income children beginning in the summer of 2020.

Cutting SNAP funds hurts children

Despite its effectiveness, the federal food stamps program, SNAP, is once again on the chopping block because of political grandstanding, and children are among the potential victims.

The first effort of its kind in the country, Summer SNAP for Children provides an additional $30 in food support during the summer months of June, July and August, and $10 over the winter break in December for very low-income children who receive SNAP benefits. Introduced by Maryland Sen. Cory McCray and Del. Pam Queen, the Summer SNAP for Children Act passed unanimously in the Maryland Senate and overwhelmingly in the House; it becomes law next month.

We know the devastating effects that food insecurity has on children’s health and education. Summer SNAP for Children is an exciting new part of the solution, allowing parents and guardians of children like our 12-year-old patient to purchase more groceries during vacation months — leading to healthier meals and healthier children.

In order to make this program a success, city and county governments need to submit an application to the state this fall for the next fiscal year. We encourage our Baltimore City government to apply and to allocate matching funding for this vital resource.

Dr. Richard Bruno and Dr. Nithin Paul are both family physicians trained in primary care and public health working at underserved clinics in Baltimore. Follow them on Twitter: @RichardBrunoMD and @NithinJPaul.

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