By Liane Jollon
Executive director, San Juan Basin Public Health
As local providers of public health and human services, we believe all Coloradans deserve equal opportunity to eat enough food to stay healthy and to prosper.
The Colorado Health Institute reports that 11 percent of Colorado residents are food insecure, meaning they lacked consistent access to a reliable food source over the past year. That amounts to over a half a million Coloradans. Residents in rural Colorado counties experience higher percentages of food insecurity often combined with other challenges such as low incomes, difficulty affording housing, social isolation, health problems and medical costs. Our neighbors to the west, Montezuma and Dolores counties, have some of the highest food insecurity rates in the state with 14-15 percent of their residents experiencing food insecurity.
In striving to protect the health of people and their communities, public health has historically emphasized the upstream prevention inherent in promoting food security for everyone. Broken down to basics, making sure that people have enough healthy food to eat will help to keep them out of the doctor’s office and ensure better health outcomes over a lifetime. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, can be considered nothing other than hugely successful in achieving its main goal of reducing food insecurity and hunger; a major win for public health.
SNAP, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, helps close to 40 million people afford food in an average month. Nearly 90 percent of recipients are in families with children, older adults or people with disabilities.
Evidence based on numerous studies demonstrates the wide-ranging success of SNAP, from its frontline defense against hunger for poor families to its positive impact on local economies.
The Center on Budget and Policies Priorities (CBPP), a nonpartisan research institute with deep expertise in analyzing federal programs and policies, highlights the extraordinary success of SNAP, calling it “the nation’s most important anti-hunger program.” The CBPP has compiled extensive research on factors contributing to SNAP’s success and highlights a number of unique qualities of the program:
• Research points to improved health outcomes of SNAP participants including fewer sick days and fewer doctor visits. SNAP participants report that they are less likely to cut back on prescribed medications due to cost than nonparticipants.
• Long-term research has shown that children receiving food stamps in the ‘60s and ‘70s had better health and educational outcomes as adults than similar children who did not have access to food stamps.
• While SNAP benefits average only around $1.40 per person, per meal, the positive economic impacts are significant.
• SNAP lifts around 7.3 million people out of poverty, including 3.3 million children. (The CBPP found that in certain years, SNAP plays more of a role in lifting children out of poverty than any other government assistance program.)
• The program reduces overall health care expenditures, saving money for all taxpayers. A national study found that low-income adults participating in SNAP incurred $1,400 less in medical costs per year than nonparticipants.
• SNAP is a very efficient program with 92 percent of federal spending going to benefits to pay for food.
• SNAP serves very poor families with over 80 percent of SNAP households at or below the federal poverty line; this amounts to $21,330 for a family of three or $12,490 for a single person.
• Most adult SNAP participants work, although many are low-wage workers with very low pay and unstable positions. Many SNAP participants use the program temporarily, while in between jobs or when work hours are reduced.
Colorado has seen progress in reducing hunger throughout the state. Over the last two years, the percent of Coloradans being food insecure has dropped. Currently, Colorado is lower than the national average (13 percent) for food insecure residents. Additionally, the state has committed to a multiyear plan called The Blueprint to End Hunger, aiming to increase enrollment in successful food programs like SNAP. Colorado also participates in a public-private partnership called Double Up Food Bucks, which doubles the value of SNAP benefits spent at participating farmers markets and food retail stores.
Evidence clearly demonstrates the huge success of SNAP — an efficient and effective federal food program that impacts people who really need it. SNAP is this country’s first line of defense against hunger.
As local public health and human service providers, we jointly endorse the continuation of SNAP — a truly effective program that reduces hunger for many people in the communities we serve.