The fall is a rewarding time to be a pediatrician in Montana. As the school year begins in full swing, I inevitably see my young patients come in for their annual checkups, sports physicals, and scheduled immunizations. Their energy and excitement for the new year is contagious, and it’s a privilege to be a part of keeping them healthy.

Unfortunately, for too many of my patients, the threat of food insecurity tempers their natural excitement and potential. Nearly one in five children in Montana live in homes that experience food insecurity, meaning they lack consistent access to adequate food. Thousands of kids who should be focused on schoolwork and playing with their friends instead have to worry about where their next meal will come from.

Fortunately, these families have the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) to help keep food on the table and mitigate the long-term consequences of hunger. In fact, 70 percent of SNAP participants in Montana are in families with children. For these children, short-term food assistance can provide a lifetime of benefits.

Adequate food and nutrition is foundational to good health. SNAP helps to establish this foundation for thousands of Montana families by effectively reducing food insecurity. Research shows that young children on SNAP are less likely to be underweight and experience developmental delays compared to children in similar economic situations but not receiving SNAP benefits. Participation in the program as a child has even been linked to better overall health in adulthood and lower rates of metabolic syndrome, which is associated with heart disease and diabetes. Finally, pregnant women who participate in SNAP have a significantly lower incidence of low-birth-weight babies.

As Congress moves forward with reauthorizing SNAP as part of the 2018 Farm Bill, they will have the opportunity to protect and strengthen this crucial program. Unfortunately, based on previous Farm Bill negotiations, we know that SNAP’s health benefits and long-term cost savings aren’t always enough to protect the program from harmful proposals. I encourage others in the health community to reach out to our members of Congress and to urge them to continue the longstanding, bipartisan fight against childhood hunger by protecting our most important nutrition program, SNAP.

Keeping children healthy is my calling, but I know that I can’t do it alone. We all have a stake in making sure that children can focus on being children. As adults, let us all commit to making sure hunger and its consequences aren’t threatening the health and future of our youngest citizens. Please join me in asking Representative Gianforte, Senator Daines, and Senator Tester to stand strong and protect SNAP.

Dr. David Mark is a primary care physician practicing pediatrics and internal medicine with the Bighorn Valley Health Center in Hardin.

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