The researchers didn’t find a similar link among adults who said they got food stamps through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), though other studies have found that children whose families got food stamps are much less likely to be “food insecure” than kids in families of similar income. Berkowitz said that this could be because the adults who actually enroll in the food stamp program tend to live in deeper poverty and have more health problems than other adults who qualify but don’t enroll, while the use of WIC is more widespread among families who qualify.
“WIC has traditionally been very good at enrolling everyone who qualifies,” he said. “It was meant as a health program, to avoid complications of malnutrition in children. SNAP was not meant as a health benefit, and the whole ethos is different. It still has lots of stigma, and the people in it tend to be much worse off.”
Learning about food insecurity isn’t part of the usual training for doctors who focus on adults, and I have never worked in a clinic that routinely asked patients if they had problems affording food and helped them apply for food assistance. In contrast, my colleagues in pediatrics and obstetrics routinely refer their patients to WIC, and are very familiar with the program. The American Academy of Pediatrics has even issued a position statement urging its members to collaborate with local WIC programs and provide information about WIC to patients who might be eligible. Some of this familiarity stems from the program’s rules: In order to qualify, women have to meet with a health professional such as a doctor, nurse practitioner, or dietician who determines whether they or their baby are at risk of having a nutritional deficiency. WIC is often administered by health departments, and frequently has offices in hospitals and clinics. In addition to providing food vouchers, WIC offers nutrition education, helps mothers who are trying to breast feed, and refers mothers and children to social service programs.
The SNAP program, for the most part, operates independently of the health system. Applicants aren’t required to meet with a health professional, and most internists and other adult medical specialists don’t routinely make direct referrals to the program.
But what if SNAP were more like WIC, and referrals to the program became second nature for clinics serving chronically ill, low-income people? I don’t want to add to the lengthy laundry list of problems for which primary care physicians are expected to screen. But some aspects of the WIC program, such as its close collaboration with health departments, hospitals and clinics, as well as its heavy focus on education, might provide a model for how the SNAP program could work with health professionals.
“We should get smarter about how to address these things at a clinic or health system level,” Berkowitz said.
One idea might be for clinic check-in staff to screen patients for food insecurity when they arrive for their appointment, perhaps by having them answer some questions on a tablet or mobile phone that would automatically trigger a referral to SNAP. It doesn’t have to be complicated—one study found that a single question—“In the past month, was there any day when you or anyone in your family went hungry because you did not have enough money for food?”—was effective at determining food insecurity among parents at a clinic serving low-income children.
Another idea might be to provide some healthy foods to patients directly at the doctors’ office. A Spanish study published in The New England Journal of Medicine last year randomized more than 7,000 patients who were at high risk of heart disease to a “Mediterranean diet,” which included free supplies of extra-virgin olive oil or a mix of walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts, or to counseling on a low fat diet that recommended fruits, vegetables, fish, low-fat dairy and bread, potatoes, pasta or rice.
At the end of five years, the people in the Mediterranean diet groups were significantly less likely to have had a stroke than those in the low fat diet “control” group. (There was no significant difference in heart attacks or in the overall death rate, however.)
Some doctors have adopted the strategy of providing healthy food “prescriptions” to low-income children and their families. In 2010, pediatrician Shikha Anand collaborated with Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit, to establish the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, which enables teams of doctors, nurses and nutrition educators to prescribe vouchers that can be redeemed for free produce at local farmers’ markets. Early data suggests the program is effective in increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and in reducing body mass index, a measure of weight, among overweight and obese children.
"There's a growing body of evidence that this program affects food security," Dr. Anand said. "It's not just the effect of getting the prescription, it's the effect of engaging in that conversation about the connection between food and health with that primary care team that you know and trust."
The Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program’s scope is limited—thus far it has enrolled just over 1,100 obese or overweight children in six states and the District of Columbia.
And even though the 2014 federal Farm Act tries to increase food stamp recipients’ access to fruits and vegetables, budget cuts and increased demand make it unlikely that food insecurity, and its attendant health problems, are unlikely to diminish anytime soon. Nor are those of us who live in states that refused to participate in the Medicaid expansion likely to see much of an improvement in our patients’ ability to pay for their medication—a recent analysis estimated that more than 32 million people nationally will remain uninsured after the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented. If we’re going to succeed at treating our patients, it’s crucial we know about their financial problems—and figure out ways to help them manage their illnesses under difficult circumstances.