West Virginia Community Engagement Program Manager Caitlin Sussman MSW, LGSW penned this guest blog for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy as part of its coalition efforts to protect and strengthen food assistance that is being threatened by the U.S. House Farm Bill.
As a Social Worker at a free health clinic, I meet citizens of our state when they are at their most vulnerable. I work with them to tackle life circumstances, past trauma and homelessness. I help them fight serious illnesses like mental illness, PTSD, Opioid Use Disorder, Diabetes, Traumatic Brain Injury and more. But I also often see a more hidden and, for me, more difficult-to-treat ailment: hunger.
I manage a program called Community Engagement in which we have home visitors work with individuals with psychiatric illness to keep them out of our costly hospitals. Our community workers struggle every month to get their clients to food pantries. The truth is that food stamps and pantries are often not enough to get folks through the month. Our workers spend a large amount of time just ensuring that clients have food.
Why? Because without nutrition or at least calories our clients are literally not able to address their serious conditions and comply with treatment. They do not take their medicine, because they are forced to choose between medical copays and food. A lot of common illnesses in our state, such as diabetes and heart disease, require special diets including fresh foods. People who qualify for SNAP cannot afford to buy produce in many cases because it is more expensive than other foods. This ends up costing our community, state and federal government a lot of money in the form of unwanted psychiatric and physical hospitalizations. As a taxpayer and a social worker, I ask that we do better- for both fiscal and humanitarian reasons.
We are not alone. Communities across the state are suffering. Food pantries cannot keep their shelves stocked. Teachers are teaching hungry students. And people with severe problems (like PTSD and Opioid Use Disorder) are asked to make better choices when their basic needs are not even being met. Far too many West Virginians struggle to put enough food on the table, and many are forced to worry about where and how they will get their next meal. Nationwide, over 15 million households report being unable to afford enough food for an active, healthy life year-round. At all ages, hunger has measurable and dangerous consequences.
That’s why I often suggest my patients in need turn to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Formerly called food stamps, SNAP provides modest benefits – about $1.29 per person per meal – to make adequate, nutritious food more available. It’s one of our most successful anti-poverty programs, helping nearly 340,000 West Virginians, and it’s a solution to some of our community’s most pressing health needs.
Right now, SNAP funding is up for renewal in Congress via the Farm Bill. In the coming weeks, the House and Senate will form a conference committee to merge their two very different views on this vital food assistance program. The House version of the bill would cut over $19 billion in SNAP funding and divert much of that money to a risky new scheme of ineffective work programs and unforgiving penalties. People with medical or mental health conditions could have their food assistance taken away because they can’t meet the expanded work requirements or because they struggle to provide documentation that proves they should be exempt. This proposal won’t help people struggling with medical or mental health conditions get a job – it will just leave them without earnings or food assistance.
Fortunately, the Senate version of the Farm Bill would protect and strengthen SNAP. I urge our Senators and House members to let the conference committee know that they support the Senate version of the Farm Bill, which will protect food assistance for the vulnerable populations I serve.
Research shows that people who don’t have access to healthy meals are more likely to suffer poor health outcomes. Adults that lack consistent access to food are at least 40 percent likelier to be diagnosed with chronic conditions like hypertension, hepatitis or a stroke. Hungry children are more likely to develop cognitive and behavioral problems, anxiety and depression and chronic health problems like asthma and anemia. Hungry seniors are at higher risk of diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, heart attacks, gum disease and asthma.
Being hungry is, very simply, bad for your health, but SNAP can be part of the cure.
New studies are starting to show what I see every day: the help SNAP provides may improve the health of those struggling to put enough food on the table. After adjusting for differences in demographic, socioeconomic, and other characteristics, adults who participate in SNAP have fewer sick days, make fewer visits to a doctor, are less likely to forgo needed care because they cannot afford it, and are less likely to exhibit psychological distress. Young children on SNAP are less likely to be at risk of being underweight or experiencing developmental delays compared to children in similar economic situations who are not receiving SNAP benefits. They’re also more likely to show long-term benefits from access to healthy food.
And so, when I come home at night, after meeting a patient struggling to get enough food, I can take comfort knowing the support they need is available. I know that I can keep their health on track. But I fear this soon may not be the case, especially if SNAP is not protected in the final Farm Bill.
Damaging cuts and changes to SNAP in the Farm Bill will hurt our communities and set back the health of working families, seniors, and people with disabilities. We cannot let West Virginians go even more hungry than they already are.
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