Healthy Food for Hungry Families

“I worry in regards to child obesity…diabetes, cholesterol, and all of those things, but personally I worry more about the children than myself.”

“My kids—they’re the ones that I worry about eating right or making sure everything is good.”

Most parents know the worry of trying to make sure their children are eating well and getting the right balance of the healthy foods they need to grow and thrive. Those universal worries become even harder for families who are already struggling just to put food on the table. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps keep children and families fed and is our nation’s first line of defense against hunger. In 2018 SNAP helped feed nearly a quarter of all children in America. But a new report just released by the USDA showed nearly nine out of 10 SNAP participants faced barriers to providing their family a healthy diet throughout the month.

The study was conducted in 2018, so it did not capture the enormous new challenges many families have faced during the pandemic. But it did make it clear that even before the pandemic more help was already needed. When researchers asked participants why they needed SNAP benefits, the most common answer was unemployment or underemployment: “My husband had fewer hours and I’m not working.” “I wasn’t working anymore. I’m working a little bit now but not much and I need food.” Other common reasons for needing SNAP included health problems and changes in family circumstances, such as the birth of a child or a separation or divorce: “I got disability because of my illnesses, and then, at the same time, got divorced so I was on my own, and I applied for SNAP.” “I’m raising my grandson. I’ve now adopted him. And ever since I’ve had him again…it was hard to make ends meet with just my income.”

SNAP made it easier for these participants to feed their families, but most said they still found it hard to access and afford healthy meals. For example, participants who did not own cars and instead had to take a bus, subway train, or walk when they needed to buy groceries felt very limited by where they could shop, whether they could shop frequently enough to purchase fresh foods regularly, and how much they could carry home: “[T]o get the really fresh stuff, you have to travel out a little bit, and I don’t have a car.” “[I]t’s cumbersome on the buses to bring back a lot of groceries.” Other barriers included not having enough time to prepare meals from scratch, which led to more reliance on prepared and processed foods, and not having storage available for fresh or cooked foods. Not surprisingly, the most common barrier people cited was how hard it can be to afford many healthy choices such as lean meat and fresh fruits and vegetables:

“It’s basically how expensive food is and healthy food. I just went to the store. It’s way expensive. To get some grapes or some tomatoes or something, it’s way more pricey than to get a six pack of ramen noodles.”

“Depending on the week of the month, if the food stamps just came sometimes we may get more leaner meats, like ground beef, than the fattier ones because the fattier ones are cheaper. That’s towards the end of the month when it’s running out.”

“For me healthy means vegetables, fruits and proteins. I really like fish, but sometimes I think about it because salmon is very expensive…that is something for every 15 days, or once a month.”

“Vegetables are really expensive, and fish is really expensive. Everything that’s healthy is expensive, that’s for the rich…I can’t buy the things that are healthy.”

No families in the wealthiest nation on Earth should be convinced that healthy food is just for the rich. Identifying the barriers SNAP participants face towards buying healthy foods helps target solutions, and right now the need is acute. The high grocery store prices that accompanied the pandemic are stretching families’ food budgets even thinner. Almost half of families who receive SNAP use their monthly benefits within the first few weeks of the month. Nearly half remain food insecure even after receiving benefits, and this report noted that SNAP participants who struggled to afford healthy foods were more than twice as likely to experience food insecurity. With the temporary boost in SNAP benefits passed in response to the COVID-19 crisis set to expire this September, Congress must permanently increase SNAP benefits and eligibility in the upcoming recovery package to ensure no child goes hungry or without the healthy foods they need most.