At its conference this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics is asking pediatricians to add two questions to the list of things they ask their patients’ parents:

  1. Within the past year, were you worried whether your food would run out before you got money to buy more?
  2. Within the past year, did the food you bought not last, and you didn’t have money to get more?

The answers could be a key way of gauging hunger, the AAP says, an endemic problem that has not gone away with the improving economy. This year 14 percent of U.S. households were considered “food insecure,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, compared to 11.1 percent in 2007, before the Great Recession began.

The majority of food-insecure households do manage to get enough to eat, but not without sacrificing the quality or variety of their meals. In one-third of food-insecure families, someone—usually an adult—actually goes hungry because there is not enough food to eat.

The academy also said pediatricians should familiarize themselves with local food banks, food-stamp programs, and free-lunch programs in order to help families who report not being able to afford enough food.

“The link between good nutrition and health is absolute,” Sandra Hassink, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in an interview. “Children with food insecurity have more abdominal pain, more illnesses, more trouble concentrating, more trouble in schools.”

Sarah Jane Schwarzenberg, the director of pediatric gastroenterology at the
University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital and one of the lead authors of the AAP’s new policy statement, said pediatricians could ask families about their food needs during well-child visits or other appointments that aren’t related to a specific, stressful ailment. The goal is to spur needy families, who are sometimes ashamed of their predicaments, to say something.

Otherwise, Schwarzenberg said, “you might not think your pediatrician would be interested. They might be actively covering up the fact that their financial situation has changed.”

The new policy represents the academy’s focus on poverty as an underpinning factor in child health. Last year, the group recommended that its members tell parents to read aloud to their children from birth—a move aimed at closing the so-called “word gap” between rich and poor children.

In an interview before a speech at the AAP conference Monday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said it helps that almost every parent already has a bond with their child’s doctor. “I don't know of another group who's more trusted than in society today than a pediatrician,” he said.