I'm really happy to have Dr. Jennifer Mrozek as our guest blogger today! Jennifer Mrozek, MD, is a pediatric resident at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Dr. Mrozek recently took the SNAP Food Challenge, I will let her explain what that means and her experience but make sure you come back tomorrow to read about her grocery trip, completing the challenge, and all of her thoughts on feeding her family on $4.40 per person each day.
Decision to take the SNAP Challenge:
Like all moms, I want to serve my kiddos the best and most nutritious foods. I will buy berries, mangoes, and other fresh fruit and veggies regardless of season or price. In addition, we buy organic. My children are never ever wanting for food. Yes, they will say, “Mom, I’m starving.” But I know I will quickly remedy the situation and that they are just a bit overdramatic. I have snacks in my purse, in the diaper bag, and in the car I have an “emergency snack container” (and I mean the I’m hungry emergencies and not real ones). We have food everywhere. And it’s healthy food. We are blessed.
As a pediatrician, I see children at our clinic that are truly starving. It breaks my heart, when asking a child during their wellness check about what they ate for breakfast and they say nothing. I then ask if they are hungry now, and they shake their head yes. Handing them a small bag of goldfish brings about a smile that tugs on your heart strings. Discussing with parents about food security, I find many depend on food stamps or WIC. But these parents say it is often not enough. They may have to choose between food and medicine or diapers or other necessities. Many parents are busy working multiple low paying jobs that span all hours of the day and night and do not have the time to prepare healthy meals on a very low budget. They are stuck going to a fast food restaurant and serving meals off the dollar or kids menu, healthy or not. And sometimes, too often, their kids go hungry.
As a mom and pediatrician, I cannot imagine having to watch your kids go hungry or to not eat until contentment. And knowing that you cannot buy the food that will allow your kids to grow and develop to their fullest potential must feel like a parenting failure.
I believe that it is unjust to judge someone until you walked in their shoes. So, I’ve decided that I will attempt to wear the food insecure shoes to better understand and empathize with my patients and to bring more awareness to food insecurity. My family and I are going to take the SNAP challenge. What is the SNAP challenge? Well, it is where you live off 4.50$ per person per day for all food and drink. You cannot use anything in your house that you have previously purchased. You cannot buy your food from places where you need a membership. And my own additional challenge that I’m adding in, is that I will not compromise my children’s nutrition.
I will keep track of my budget, report what I bought and for how much. I’ll also record the prep time, cook time, knowing that time is also a limiting factor. I’ll try to follow nutritional guidelines and create well-balanced meals. I will feed my family of 4 (my husband, 2 boys (1 and 3), and myself) for a week on the SNAP assistance budget. This will be about 90$ total budget. I will write about my journey for you all to enjoy.
First however, I want to provide some data and evidence that shows how pervasive food insecurity is in America and why should we care. And also, quickly provide some basic education about SNAP and poverty for those who are not aware of the program.
What does Food Insecurity look like in the United States?
According to the USDA, they use food insecurity in varying degrees to help tease out hunger in the USA. See the definitions below:
High food security (old label=Food security): no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.
Marginal food security (old label=Food security): one or two reported indications—typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.
Low food security (old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
Very low food security (old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
The most recent data collected by the USDA was in 2015, which showed that 12.7 percent (15.8 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some point during the year. Food-insecure households include those with low food security and very low food security. 7.7 percent (9.5 million) of U.S. households had low food security in 2015. 5.0 percent (6.3 million) of U.S. households had very low food security at some time during 2015.
My feelings, as a pediatrician and mom, is that children that fall into the low and very low food security overall health is negatively affected. Data shows that unhealthy, unbalanced meals also lead to difficulties for children. Difficulties in the classroom, with development, and psychological wellbeing. I am not OK with children or anyone, being negatively affected due to food insecurity. My goal of the SNAP challenge and this blog is to raise awareness of child hunger.
What is SNAP?
SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that is funded through the federal government through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is the largest hunger prevention safety net in the country and is sometimes referred to as food stamps. In 2015, which is the most recent data, 45.8 million individuals received SNAP. Qualification depends on income (net income of 100% of the poverty line or below that’s based on family size), creating diverse group of beneficiaries. 32% of people that participate in SNAP have jobs, although that statistic includes children who make up many of the beneficiaries.
I was curious to see how little I had to make to qualify for SNAP. For my family of 4, our gross income needed to be 2,633$ or less per month (which is 130% of the poverty line). Then to calculate your net income, you subtract deductions for various things, such as dependents, excessive medical costs for elderly, having children. For a family of 4, the net income would need to be less than 2,025$ per month.
How is the Poverty Line determined?
Since SNAP qualifications is based upon the poverty line, I wanted to understand how it is determined who the United States labels “impoverished.” The poverty threshold is determined yearly, but is based upon an arbitrary figure of three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963 that is adjusted for inflation. Then that number is further adjusted for family size, age of household members, and composition. Family is determined by those living together related by marriage, birth, or adoption. In 2015, 13.5 % of US citizens were living in poverty, equaling 43.1 million people. Some critiques of the poverty threshold is that it does not reflect modern expenses and resources, has a very strict definition of family, does not vary based upon geographic location and cost of living, and does not take into account medical and other unavoidable expenses.