By Shereen Jegtvig
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A program that provides nutrition assistance to millions of low-income families may be linked to improved well-being among children, according to a new study.
Researchers found that children in households who participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for six months had substantial improvements in their consistent access to food - or "food security."
Food insecurity has been linked to a number of health and developmental problems among children, the authors write.
"Stated simply, SNAP works," James Mabli told Reuters Health.
Mabli, the study's lead author, is a senior researcher with Mathematica Policy Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a data collection and analysis company.
"SNAP is achieving its objective of reducing hunger, and it's achieving that objective for one of the most vulnerable populations which are households with children," he said.
The findings are especially important now because the program in general and the amount of benefits households receive have been under fire for the past few years, he said.
SNAP is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It's the largest U.S. food assistance program and reached approximately 47 million people in 2013. Families enrolled in SNAP can use benefits to buy most food, but not alcohol, supplements or prepared meals.
About half of SNAP enrollees are children, according to Mabli and his colleague Julie Worthington.
Previous studies have looked into whether SNAP improves people's food security, but the results have been mixed.
One recent report found people who received assistance through SNAP fared no better than people in similar conditions who were not eligible or didn't enroll in the program (see Reuters Health story of November 25, 2013 here: http://reut.rs/1jMCBvl).
The new study, Mabli said, includes the largest number of households and most recent information and takes into account other factors that could affect food security, such as changes in income.
The data came from the SNAP Food Security survey, which was conducted by Mathematica for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service from 2011 to 2012. It included about 3,000 families who were enrolled in SNAP.
First, the researchers compared survey information from households that had enrolled within the previous five days to families who'd been in SNAP for six to seven months.
Next, they followed up with the new-entrant families about six months later to see if there had been any changes in their access to food.
In the first part of the study, the proportion of households in which children were food insecure was 37 percent for new-entrant households compared to 27 percent for families that had been enrolled for six months.
When the researchers followed up with the new-entrant families six months later, they found the rate of food insecurity among children had dropped to just under 25 percent.
SNAP was also linked to a decrease in the odds of children experiencing severe food insecurity, the researchers reported in Pediatrics.
"We examined whether there is a larger improvement in food security for people who have received more benefits because we expect there to be a larger improvement," Mabli said. "In one of the two samples, we found that SNAP decreased the chance of being food insecure by 50 percent, so it cut it in half."
"There is a greater improvement (in) food security for people who receive greater benefit amounts. And so when in the news you see people advocating reduction of benefits you really have to consider the effect it's going to have on children's food security," Mabli said.
Funding has been cut to SNAP recently. A temporary increase that was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 ended in November of last year. The 2014 Farm Bill that was signed in February cuts about $8 billion of SNAP funding over the next 10 years.
In 2013, the average SNAP recipient received about $133 per month, but that number will drop below $130 per month this year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"For households that continue to be eligible in participating, decreasing the benefit can have a severe impact on the lives of children," Mabli said. "Any reduction of benefits needs to be carefully targeted to avoid eroding food security."
There are a number of people on SNAP who are still food insecure, he added, which means they have trouble finding enough food or being able to purchase enough food.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1okd9x9 Pediatrics, online March 3, 2014.