For most children, summer is something to look forward to during the school year, but for others, summer recess and other extended breaks from school produce anxiety and uncertainty about when they might get their next meal.
Breaks from school present challenges for some families with low income who rely on meals provided at school. Even a few snow days can affect the food security of a family with low income. This is a serious issue—children require good nutrition for optimal growth and development, readiness to learn, and school performance.
Food insecurity and hunger affect health outcomes
As a nutritionist and researcher for more than 35 years, I know that food insecurity can result in a host of issues for children, including nutrition problems (such as poor growth, anemia, and obesity), mental health problems (such as anxiety and depression), and social and behavioral problems (such as aggression). The obstacles caused by this food insecurity can result in decreased educational achievement and even longer-lasting consequences.
It’s imperative that we increase public awareness about how important nutrition is to children’s health and well-being and that we identify strategies to help families with low income feed their children regardless of whether school is in session.
Sharing the data and research with state policymakers
I was humbled to be able to provide my insights and expertise in testimony before the Maryland Senate on Bill 218 – the Summer SNAP for Children Act. As currently written, the bill allows counties in Maryland to apply for additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds during summer months and winter break so that families can access additional SNAP benefits when children are out of school. The evidence is clear: policies such as those proposed in Bill 218 could help improve the food security of low-income families.
The stories behind the statistics
Although the research suggests that providing nutrition assistance during the summer months could reduce food insecurity, we must not forget the people behind the data. For years, I’ve heard from parents about how they cope, such as sending their children to eat at relatives’ homes or, in more extreme circumstances, selling their own blood to buy food. Children are not immune to such difficult choices either, whether that means choosing to eat at a friend’s house so younger siblings have more to eat at home or hiding food to eat later. Statistics help provide a sense of the problem’s extent, but it’s equally important to share stories that personalize the stress and anxiety many parents with low income feel when trying to feed their children three healthy meals a day.
I hope that policymakers will continue to look to the evidence supporting steps such as this to improve the food security of families with low income and their children throughout the state. I’m thankful for the opportunity to share my insights and expertise, and I look forward to providing additional guidance in the future.