Children and Hunger
The Implications of Food Insecurity For Children A critical component to a healthy life is nutrition. From birth, the intake of vital nutrients is essential to the growth and development of a healthy individual. Good nutrition, particularly in the first three years of life, is important in establishing and maintaining a good foundation that has implications on a child’s future physical and mental health, academic achievement, and economic productivity. Unfortunately, food insecurity is an obstacle that threatens that critical foundation.
In the United States, more than one out of six children lives in a food insecure household, which means they do not always know where they will find their next meal. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 16.7 million children under 18 in the United States live in this condition – unable to consistently access nutritious and adequate amounts of food necessary for a healthy life. i The states with the highest rates of child food insecurity (children under 18) are Texas and Mississippi. The other states with child hunger rates at or above 20 percent are: Tennessee, Arizona, South Carolina, Louisiana, Missouri, Maine, plus the District of Columbia.
Inadequate nutrition has adverse affects on:
Physical Health: Insufficient nutrition puts children at risk for illness and weakens their immune system. The immature immune systems of young children, ages 0 – 5, make them especially vulnerable to nutritional deprivation and as a result, the ability to learn, grow, and fight infections is adversely affected.iii Consequently, without the proper nutritional intake children are at risk for poor health and hospitalization. Research reveals, in comparison to food secure children, children from food insecure families are 90 percent more likely to be in fair or poor health and have 30 percent higher rates of hospitalization.iv Not only does the lack of sufficient nutrition take a tool on a child’s health but has economic consequences for families as well. The average cost for a single hospitalization for pediatric illness is $11,300.
Behavior and Mental Heath: The lack of adequate nutrition affects the cognitive and behavioral development of children. Child development is the manner in which children attain skills in memory, cognition, language, motor ability, social interaction, behavior and perception.vi Research by Wehler, Scott, and Anderson 1995 found that food insecure low income households were more likely to experience irritability, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating compared to other children. Research has shown that food insecurity was associated with grade repetition, absenteeism, tardiness, anxiety, aggression, poor mathematics scores, psychosocial dysfunction and difficulty with social interaction among 6 to 12 year old children. Food insecurity has also shown to be associated with suicide and depressive disorders among 15 to 16 year old children after controlling for income and other factors. vii Food insecurity not only has an impact on children’s mental health but also on their mothers as well. Research by Casey, Goulsby, Berkowitz, et al 2004 found an association with maternal depression and food insecurity in addition to reported poor child health.
Child Development: Food insecurity puts children in jeopardy of developmental risk. Developmental risk is an uninterrupted existence of vulnerabilities that is characterized with the slow or unusual development of children in areas such as speaking, behavior, and movement, which increases the likelihood of later problems with attention, learning, and social interaction. Rose, Jacobs, et al. 2006 found that young children living in low income and food insecure households are more likely to be developmentally at risk than children from food secure households.ix Of particular concern, are children of color who have disproportionately higher rates of poverty and food insecurity than white children. Research from the Children’s Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Program (C-SNAP) found that in comparison to Black children living in low income but food secure households, Black children living in low income and food insecure households experience 57 percent higher odds of their parents identifying significant development concerns. For Latino children, children living in low income and food insecure households experience twice the odds of their parents identifying significant developmental concerns than Latino children living in low income and food secure households.
School Readiness and Achievement: Children from food insecure households are likely to be behind in their academic development compared to other children which ultimately makes it difficult for them to reach the same level of development as their fellow food secure peers. Research conducted by Frongillo, Jyoti, and Jones 2005 found that food insecurity impairs academic development of young school-age children. This study revealed that the reading and mathematical skills of food insecure children entering kindergarten developed significantly more slowly than other children.
Fortunately, there are federal nutrition assistance programs available to help low income families with meeting the nutritional needs of their children and protect them from the consequences of malnutrition and under nutrition.
The Food Bank of South Central Michigan's After-School Pack program directly addresses all of the above issues related to childhood hunger.