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off the charts

SNAP Keeps Food on the Table for Low-Income Kids

Some 13 million children lived in families that had trouble putting enough food on the table to feed everyone at some time during 2015.  That’s a grave concern, though one that SNAP (formerly food stamps) is addressing, as we describe in our new paper.

Children need access to a safe and secure source of food to foster their development, health, and well‐being.  Because SNAP enables low-income households to spend more on food than their limited budgets would otherwise allow, it makes it likelier that they and their children have enough to eat. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a “food insecurity” measure that assesses whether families have sufficient access all year to enough food for an active, healthy life.  Adults often protect the children in their households from the severest forms of food insecurity but, in 2015, half a million children lived in families in which one or more of the children themselves didn’t get enough to eat at some point during the year.  That’s a big problem because children without enough food face a host of adverse health and developmental outcomes including poorer overall health; cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems; and lower academic performance.

Food insecurity among children falls by roughly a third after their families receive SNAP benefits for six months, one study found (see chart).  In another study, giving families additional benefits during summer months when their children didn’t have access to free or reduced-price school meals also reduced the prevalence of very low food security among children — when some have to cut the size of meals, skip meals, or even go entire days without food — by about a third.  

Conversely, cutting SNAP benefits puts more children at risk of food insecurity.  Food insecurity among children rose after higher SNAP benefits included in the Recovery Act ended.  Families with young children interviewed in health care settings (such as emergency rooms) were 17 percent more likely to be food insecure after the Recovery Act increase was eliminated compared to similar families when the increase was in effect.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a closer look at SNAP’s longer-term positive effects on children.