Op-ed: Boosting SNAP Will Put More Food on Millions of Tables. It Will Also Prevent Depression and Anxiety. | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Boosting SNAP Will Put More Food on Millions of Tables. It Will Also Prevent Depression and Anxiety.

The first food-assistance increase in a generation will also help prevent the mental health challenges that come with food insecurity.

Mother and 2 young daughters eating breakfast, mother helping the youngest, despite suffering crippling mental health challenges as a result of food insecurity

In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) substantially increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for the first time in 45 years. SNAP serves 1 in 8 Americans, reducing food insecurity and child hunger. But anti-hunger advocates often criticized the program for relying on an outdated formula, one that understated the cost of food while overstating families’ free time to cook. The result: too little money for a healthy diet.

Now, SNAP’s formula has been updated to address these shortfalls. As a consequence, benefits have risen by 21 percent, or an average of $36 per person per month. This change promises to boost food security and health, SNAP’s top two goals. It also has the potential to yield another, less discussed dividend: improved mental health.

Research consistently finds connections between food insecurity and poor mental health, including depressive symptoms, anxiety, hopelessness, and distress. I have observed this link firsthand. As I wrapped up high school and moved away for college, my father was left debilitated and jobless by a routine infection gone rogue. When his income dissolved and hard-earned savings ran dry, he began to fret over food. Away for college, I didn’t live through this food scarcity every day. But on visits home, I too faced an empty refrigerator, and I saw a kind and caring person reduced by the inability to satisfy one of our most basic needs—to feed ourselves and the ones we love.

This experience, in part, motivated me to research how parents decide what to feed their children in families, rich and poor. For nearly four years, I crisscrossed the Boston area talking with mothers about their feeding priorities and their food realities. I tagged along as they shopped for groceries. And in the process, I saw families’ lives up close. As I watched poor mothers take their first bite of food for the day well past noon and remove food from the checkout conveyor belt because they came up short, it became clear that food insecurity not only affects what people eat; it also takes a psychic toll.

Food insecurity—by its very definition—breeds anxiety and stress. Ninety percent of food-insecure Americans report worrying that food in the house will run out before there is money for more. The parents I talked to were no different. Some lost sleep—or their appetites—fretting about food. Faced with cavernous cupboards, others felt lonely and depressed. Parents bore the double strain of trying to make things seem okay. Some admitted to breaking into tears while their children slept. Others spoke of running their faucets to drown out their midday sobs while fending off their children’s innocent inquiries about why mommy was taking a shower again.

The emotional toll of food insecurity is about more than material deprivation. It’s about social exclusion, too. Experts argue that in wealthy nations like ours, poverty is best defined as the inability to afford a typical standard of living. Unwillingly deviating from the norm sends a message that one stands outside society, corroding one’s self-regard and their mental health in turn.

Like 80 percent of food-insecure Americans, the families I met couldn’t always afford balanced meals. Balance might seem like a purely nutritional issue. But eating cupboard-remnant hodgepodge means defying widely-shared definitions of a “proper” meal. Straying from the norm to keep everyone fed made many of the parents I spoke to feel like outsiders, adding emotional insult to poverty’s economic injury. As one mother said, bemoaning her son’s breakfast of leftover pork chops with mac and cheese, “I’d rather get my kids waffles or pancakes, the little things they used to do. Honestly, those are the little things I do cry about.”

Food is also deeply intertwined with the rituals and rites of social life, setting special occasions apart from the mundane. Drippy popsicles welcome summer, hot cider augers autumn, and candle-topped cakes say, “We’re so glad you were born.” Food makes experience fuller. But for struggling parents, trying to afford food beyond the basics often spawned anxiety. While most families tracked down holiday sweets and special treats, doing so often came at a cost: many could not afford to have their cake and eat kale, too.

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“It is crucial to recognize the potential mental health gains of an expanded SNAP: by leaving them out of the equation, we risk understating the true impact of this policy change.”

Routine social interactions also center on food, and low-income people can’t always take part. Unable to feed an extra mouth, the parents I spoke to seldom invited friends over to eat. When others shared, many couldn’t return the favor in kind. Some parents even curtailed their children’s play dates for want of a snack. Sharing food strengthens ties. But those who were unable engage in such exchange felt isolated and ashamed instead.

These emotional burdens hit food-insecure parents with particular force. Beyond falling short of “normal,” they risked falling short of the social duty they valued most: providing for their child. This is especially true when our conception of a “good” childhood includes not just basic needs, but fun “extras.” And even in poor households, providing the trappings of a good childhood was essential to parents’ self-regard. “I gotta make it work,” one mother said as she detailed a convoluted grocery-shopping routine that freed up money for treats. “They gotta be happy.”

Some conservatives object to expanding SNAP, saying it won’t spur healthier choices. Quelling hunger, they claim, takes cheap, plain pasta and better budgeting. But these arguments miss a key point: food shapes our health not just through flesh and blood, but also through psyche and self. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed just how much our mental health hinges on peace of mind, social bonds, and an existence we deem “normal.” These are not luxuries. While dignity and inclusion may seem like lofty philosophical issues, they powerfully influence our health. Feeling continually unable take part in society disrupts our metabolism through a cascade of stress hormones, and triggers inflammation that wears on the body and brain, ultimately increasing the risk of chronic disease.

It is crucial to recognize the potential mental health gains of an expanded SNAP: by leaving them out of the equation, we risk understating the true impact of this policy change. But bolstering SNAP shouldn’t detract from efforts to address poverty’s deeper roots. Poverty takes its own toll on mental health and social well-being. Policies such a living wage, a guaranteed basic income, universal health care, and free childcare can reduce fundamental economic insecurity, and along with it, the stress, stigma, and exclusion that financial insecurity breeds. SNAP plays an essential role in softening poverty’s blows. Ultimately, we must push for a world where we no longer need it.

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Caitlin Daniel is a lecturer in sociology at UC Berkeley studying culture, health, inequality, and family. Her research examines how parents across the socioeconomic spectrum decide what to feed their children, with a focus on how these decisions stem from families' economic resources and the meaning they ascribe to feeding and food. Read more >

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  1. Bettina Neuefeind
    I am always so happy to read about your ongoing work, Caitlin! This is so well said, and your research is so critical in creating an evidence base for these intuitively obvious but politically unpopular policy arguments. Keep keeping on.
    • Caitlin Daniel
      Well, hello! I just happened to notice that there were comments on this piece--what a lovely surprise to find your kinds words here. I'm so glad that this piece crossed your desk and that you liked it. Thanks for taking the time to read!
  2. Sharon D Stergis
    I'm a Writer. This is like a cover story of a book. I wanted to read more. It's excellent writing. TY.
    • Caitlin Daniel
      Thanks for the kind words, Sharon. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this piece. I'm so glad you liked it. Incidentally, there's a book in the works :)

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