Food insecurity is a substantial public health issue impacting over 34 million people across the United States, including more nearly 300,000 in Bexar County. The lack of consistent access to enough food to live an active, healthy life means people who are food-insecure face significant psychological and physical health disparities, including higher rates of depression, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and worse oral health. Organizations such as the American College of Physicians have declared food insecurity a threat to public health in the U.S.

As a researcher at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health on the San Antonio Regional Campus, I study health disparities experienced by currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. My research finds that when people leave prison and jail and reenter the community, they are exceptionally at high risk for food insecurity. In fact, research shows that formerly incarcerated individuals have double the risk of food insecurity than those who have not been incarcerated.

Recently proposed legislation could help. Texas state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and state Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) filed bipartisan bills in the Senate (SB 727) and House of Representatives (HB 1743) that would change the laws to implement a pre-release registration for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits before a person leaves prison, providing a chance of having SNAP benefits approved before they reenter the community.

In the U.S., food assistance programs like SNAP are foundational for preventing food insecurity by providing financial support to purchase food for those in need. Abundant research evidence demonstrates that the SNAP program helps alleviate food insecurity and poverty and helps improve health and well-being for individuals and their families. However, getting SNAP benefits approved after applying can take months, providing little relief for formerly incarcerated individuals needing support in the days and weeks after transitioning out of prison and back into the community.

Notably, the risk for adverse outcomes, including mortality and recidivism, is especially elevated in the initial days and weeks after an individual exits a prison or jail and begins reintegrating into the community. During this challenging transitional period, a person is often low on money, without stable work, and does not have reliable connections established with housing, family or other critical support systems. On top of this, many people leave prison or jail with legal debt from court-imposed fines, fees or other legally-mandated financial obligations, further exacerbating financial hardship.

These experiences can make it challenging to secure essential resources, including enough food to feed themselves and their family members. Consequently, insufficient access to food undermines the chances that a person can remain mentally and physically healthy enough to successfully reintegrate into society after incarceration and have a second chance at life.

The legislation introduced by West and Leach would change existing policy to allow individuals to access these benefits soon after release, ensuring access to critical resources needed to put food on the table for formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, and ultimately help support a successful community reintegration.

With over 135,000 people in Texas prisons and over 300,000 on probation or parole, this sensible policy has the chance to make a profound impact by reducing hunger and supporting the health of formerly incarcerated individuals in San Antonio and across Texas. It also serves as a template for future legislation in other states looking to support the food security of formerly incarcerated individuals.

Bio: Alexander Testa, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. His research examines the health of currently and formerly...