For Better Health Outcomes, Investments in Nutrition Matter

Jan 10, 2024

Access to quality, affordable health care is a fundamental part of ensuring that people can live healthy and fulfilling lives. The health care system should be foremost focused on improving health outcomes as shown by indicators like rates of chronic disease, lifespan and economic security. But getting to these outcomes isn’t just about access to medical care. 

In fact, research shows that only about 20% of health outcomes are directly linked to medical care. The remainder are determined by social determinants of health care (SDOH) that include basic conditions of living like homelessness, food insecurity, environmental pollution and patient behaviors. That’s common sense: the conditions in which people live, their livelihoods, the air and water they consume, and the neighborhoods they live in all shape what kind of health a person will experience and how they may use the health care system to stay healthy, manage disease and prevent illness. 

That’s why, to get to better health, we can’t just focus on coverage and affordability in healthcare, we have to improve the overall conditions of people’s lives in order to have a real chance at improving health. The current federal budget debate is a timely opportunity. 

Members of the U.S House and U. S. Senate are currently negotiating a federal budget deal  that will make new cuts in key programs that support housing, nutrition, education, transportation and public safety. Cutting spending on these resources even as the need for services is increasing could have negative health consequences down the line, even if those affected never lose their health coverage. But cutting is just part of the problem: lawmakers should reassess their priorities to invest more in key programs that we know provide essential services rather than continue partisan gridlock that does not serve constituents, whether they voted for Democrats or Republicans. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Children and Infants (WIC) program, for instance, has for decades enjoyed bipartisan support. WIC provides nutrition support to mothers and young children (under 5). These days, the program is more popular than ever since pandemic inflation and the rising cost of food have made it harder to stretch grocery budgets. WIC is there to ensure that moms and their kids get a strong start by ensuring they get the nutritious food they need to develop strong minds and bodies. 

Research from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health  shows that WIC has a strong record of preventing children’s health problems and improving their long-term health, growth and development. Childhood WIC participation is correlated to an array of positive health and cognitive outcomes when compared to children who are eligible but not participating in WIC. Not only does that give millions a boost in early life, it saves the rest of us money down the road on more expensive healthcare bills and services. Research shows that every dollar spent on WIC results in $2.48 of future savings in medical, educational, and productivity costs.

It’s clear that Americans get a good return on investments in WIC. And more investment is needed now. 

WIC is facing a $1 billion shortfall this year because of increased demand and cost of food. If Congress doesn’t act soon to fill the gap, millions of Americans could be turned away from WIC even though they are eligible because the program will run out of money. 

In state after state thousands of moms and young kids  could be forced to go without the nutritious food they need, help with breastfeeding support, child immunizations, and other services that parents and kids need because of Congressional inaction. Ultimately, 2 million parents and kids could go without food and other services because of the anticipated shortfall. 

The WIC shortfall is a solvable problem and for the people who are going without the food they need, the problem is urgent. Ultimately, taking action on WIC is a matter of political priorities. It’s time for lawmakers to prioritize basic needs for kids and parents over their own infighting or partisan axe-grinding and pass an increase in funding that will reap big benefits for the future by feeding hungry people now.