The Impact of Food Insecurity on Child Well-Being

By Patrick Heiman and Courtney Barthle

“And the kids know my food stamps got cut off. Because when they came home from school today, they didn’t have their snacks. I really didn’t tell them why or anything like that, because I don’t think they understand. But it affected them.”

― Melissa H., ”Witness to Hunger Project”

Heiman-BarthleWhen people are food insecure, they face significant pressures not being able to afford enough food for themselves or their families. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses the term “food insecure” to describe someone who “lack(s) reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.”

Food insecurity impacts nearly one out of every five households in the United States, many of which include young children. In 2014, more than 15.3 million children lived in food-insecure households, while the rate of children living in “very food insecure” households — a more severe form of food insecurity where families experience more frequent disruptions to normal eating patterns — is on the rise. This trend is particularly alarming because, while food insecurity is harmful to all people, it can be especially devastating to a child’s development.

Complex mechanics drive food insecurity, including poverty and limited household resources; however, there are other accompanying or influencing factors. Studiesshow that parental substance abuse, chronic depression in mothers, negative parenting behavior and housing instability are all associated with low or very low food security.

According to the USDA, nonresident father involvement also influences child food security — notably, regular visits from nonresident dads (more than once per week) greatly reduce childhood food insecurity, while child support payments do not significantly affect a family’s ability to consistently access enough food.

Previous research also suggests that child food insecurity is more prevalent in certain populations. Studies found that food insecurity is higher among children of immigrants and that food access and hunger are more prominent in less acculturated immigrant families: those with limited English proficiency, recent arrivals to the U.S., refugees and noncitizens.

Children with an incarcerated parent are also more likely to experience very low food security.

The implications of food insecurity on child development and school performance are striking.  Infants and toddlers who experience food insecurity may struggle with attachment, behavioral problems and cognitive development. In early elementary school, food insecurity impacts reading and math performance, girls’ weight gain and boys’ development of social skills.

Higher elementary grade children who experience food insecurity are at a greater risk for repeating a grade, while adolescents face increased risks of disordered mood, behavior, substance use and even suicide.

These struggles do not end in childhood. Recent studies have also explored how the impacts of childhood food insecurity can continue into adulthood, with effects such as reduced ability to manage stress and weaker future job performance.

[Related: Partnering with Schools Reduces Hunger Among School Kids and Families]

Children- and youth-serving professionals can help connect their stakeholders to a range of school- or community-based programs that address food insecurity. Two such programs are the school food “Backpack Programs” and Farmer’s MarketInitiatives.

Tens of millions of children benefit from school lunch and breakfast programs each year. To lessen the effects of food insecurity when children leave school, an increasing number of elementary schools, food banks and community organizations collaborate to provide “backpack programs” to offer supplemental food assistance. Prior to weekends and school holidays, low-income children at risk for food insecurity discreetly receive a backpack containing healthy foods. There is limited research on the effectiveness of backpack programs, but a recent Illinoisstudy found a significant number of participating families moved from low food security to food secure, and many of them reported the programs had a large, positive impact on their household budget.

As demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables has increased, so, too, have efforts to connect low-income families to the nearly 8,300 farmers markets — an increase of 200 percent since 2000 — in their communities. Accepting nutrition assistance programs like SNAP and WIC is one strategy that has been widely used by market planners to engage low-income customers. Programs such as East New York Farms! and The Food Project in Lynn, Massachusetts, also provide children- and adolescent-oriented programming at farmers markets to expand knowledge of healthy eating choices and to involve young people in identifying ways to improve their local food system.

While food insecurity is widespread and, in some demographics, increasing in scale, an active response among federal and state governments, schools and community agencies is working to address this epidemic. Innovative, local efforts like backpack programs, in collaboration with large-scale public-assistance programs like SNAP and WIC, hold promise to restore and protect the potential of all food-insecure children.

Patrick Heiman, MPA, is a training and technical assistance manager with ICF International who has nearly a decade of experience in the fields of TANF, food assistance and rural poverty. Courtney Barthle, MPAff, is a senior manager at ICF International, where she directs projects focused on family self-sufficiency and TANF, including OPRE’s Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse.

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