Opinion: A Solution For Keeping Kids Out of the ER: Making Sure They Have Enough to Eat

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This winter, the U.S. experienced a dramatic increase in the number of children needing emergency medical care for respiratory infections, all while hospitals continue to face staffing shortages and other challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Although this type of surge isn’t always predictable, these events should renew attention to factors we can control to keep demand for routine pediatric emergency medical care to a minimum. In a recent article published by my colleagues and I in the medical journal Pediatrics, we added new evidence about one such factor: food access. 

Too many children in the U.S. have poor access to food. Past research studies have provided a wealth of evidence linking food insecurity among children to worse developmental, physical and mental health throughout childhood and into adulthood. To be clear, this is not inevitable: It is a policy choice. 

Moreover, we know how to address this problem. Nutrition assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamps Program) have been shown to improve food access significantly. Our study extended what we know about SNAP by providing evidence that, when children live in a household that participates in the program, they are less likely to have an emergency department visit. We further showed that this relationship appears to operate through improved food access and general health of children in SNAP participating households. We observed even greater benefits among children with elevated health care needs — such as kids with chronic conditions — that require them to receive additional services or therapies beyond routine care. 

This month, nearly 15 million children in households participating in SNAP will face a “hunger cliff,” as the amount of food assistance they receive through the program falls due to the expiration of pandemic-related programs. Congress is also debating whether to cut or expand SNAP in the next Farm Bill and amidst negotiations about the debt ceiling. 

As these policy decisions are made, the findings from our recent paper should help clarify the implications of these policy choices for children’s health and for the burdens felt by the medical systems that care for them. 

Rajan Sonik is director of research for the AltaMed Health Services Institute for Health Equity.

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