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By Dr. Ed Ivancic
The American medical community has been concerned for some time about the reality of hunger and malnutrition in our nation. Nutrition is paramount to health and survival, especially for young children who are more susceptible to illness and long-term health problems without proper nutrition.
In the first year of life, the human brain grows rapidly to almost 2/3 the size of an adult brain. Nerve tissues become insulated with myelin, letting different parts of the brain communicate better and faster. Infants and toddlers learn and retain new knowledge by means of these complex connections between brain cells. Healthy brain development is dependent on adequate nutrition. Child malnutrition stunts brain development and how quickly and well a child can learn. Damage from malnutrition in the first year of life is irreversible.
This is why many members of the medical community are very concerned about the recently proposed cuts to food stamps in the Farm bills passed by the Agriculture Committee in the House, and the Farm bill passed by the full Senate. Food stamps or SNAP, the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is part of the Farm Bill because it was initially set up by Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, when farmers had surplus food crops and many Americans did not have enough to eat. Food Stamps became part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960’s, and the program has historically been supported by congressmen and presidents of both parties. Until now.
The House Agriculture Committee has passed the most draconian cuts to the food stamp program: $20.5 billion over the next decade or Five times what is proposed by the Senate. About 2 million people would be dropped from the food stamp program under the House plan.
Among the myths heard around town about SNAP is, “Food stamp users don’t shop wisely and buy too many steaks.” However, two recent USDA studies show that the diet of food stamp users is not much different from that of non-users with one major difference: food stamp users find that cost often defeats their best efforts to provide well-balanced meals to their families. The meats purchased with food stamps are most often chicken, hamburger, and pork. Almost all food stamp users buy large amounts of non-perishables such as rice, pasta, beans, and canned goods. Most bypass fresh vegetables and fruits, trying to manage cost and minimize waste.
Some of those pushing for the most severe cuts to food stamps this year, point to the rising number of food stamp recipients versus the decrease in the unemployment rate. What they are missing is that many workers who lost their jobs during the Great Recession have had to take pay cuts with their current jobs. Some could only find part-time work. This is why the ranks of the working poor have swelled in this recovery.
A 2012 USDA report on food stamps found that 47 percent of those benefitting from the SNAP program are children. In 2011, 3.9 million American families with young children were Food Insecure and often could not provide enough healthy food to make it through the month. That 3.9 million is almost 10 percent of all American families with young children. And the proposed cuts to food stamps will only make the problem worse, with more hungry children and families.
Government spending, as politicians like to tell us, is all about setting priorities. Surely making sure our poorest citizens, especially the children, have enough to eat should be one of our highest priorities.
Ivancic is the past president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.