Food Assistance Programs and Child Health Craig Gundersen Summary Food assistance programs—including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), the National School Lunch Program, and the School Breakfast Program — have been remarkably successful at their core mission: reducing food insecurity among low- income children. Moreover, writes Craig Gundersen, SNAP in particular has also been shown to reduce poverty, improve birth outcomes and children’s health generally, and increase survival among low-weight infants. Thus these programs are a crucial component of the United States’ social safety net for health. Recent years have seen proposals to alter these programs to achieve additional goals, such as reducing childhood obesity. Two popular ideas are to restrict what recipients can purchase with SNAP benefits and to change the composition of school meals, in an effort to change eat- ing patterns. Gundersen shows that these proposed changes are unlikely to reduce childhood obesity yet are likely to have the unintended effect of damaging the programs’ core mission by reducing participation and thus increasing food insecurity among children. On the other hand, Gundersen writes, policy makers could contemplate certain changes that would make food assistance programs even more effective. For example, lawmakers could revisit the SNAP benefit formula, which hasn’t changed for decades, to make certain that aid is going to those who need it most. Similarly, the School Breakfast Program could be expanded to cover more children, and summer meal programs could reach more children when school isn’t in session. Craig Gundersen is the Soybean Industry Endowed Professor in Agricultural Strategy in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois and the executive director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory. He is also a member of the Technical Advisory Group of Feeding America and is the lead researcher on the Map the Meal Gap project. Michele Ver Ploeg of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service reviewed and critiqued a draft of this article. VOL. 2 5 / NO. 1 / SPRING 2 0 1 5 91
Craig Gundersen F ood assistance programs have long been an important part of the social safety net for U.S. children. But the role of these programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), has increased over the past 20 years, as nonfood assistance programs have declined. The four largest programs, SNAP, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the free- and reduced-price National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and the free- and reduced-price School Breakfast Program (SBP), have a combined budget of almost $100 billion.
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