These families do what they can to survive. Some rely on charitable food pantries and federal food-assistance programs. Adults skip meals or forego healthy food so their children can eat. In 422,000 American households, children are also going hungry with their parents.
In a recent policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics describes how struggles for consistent access to affordable, nutritious food impacts nearly one in five children. Children of color are disproportionately affected: African-American and Latino children make up 15 percent and 24 percent of the American child population respectively, yet 38.5 percent of black households and 31 percent of Latino households with children have been food insecure.
This is a dire situation for future-majority Americans. When families with children four months to 3 years old experience food insecurity, children suffer adverse effects on the development of cognitive, linguistic, fine motor, and social skills. These skills are critical building blocks for school readiness and future academic performance.
Even brief periods of early-childhood food insecurity have negative consequences on how children learn. A study in The Journal of Nutrition showed kindergarteners from households without enough to eat continued to have lower reading and writing skills than their food-secure peers. The very concerning associations between food insecurity and emotional well-being should come as no surprise, as children struggling with hunger are often struggling with behavioral dysregulation as well.
Seeing the Impact
I have witnessed the serious impacts of food insecurity on a child’s physical health during my clinical experience.
For example, iron-deficiency anemia can develop long before a child’s weight loss is visible, and has been shown to impact physical and neurological development. Additionally, children from food-insecure households have a 90-percent greater chance of their parents describing their health as fair or poor. They also experience a higher rate of hospitalizations and chronic diseases.
Public-health researchers continue to study whether and how food insecurity and obesity are related, but what we do know is that many children in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are less likely to have easy access to supermarkets with high-quality nutritious food. Like the families I serve, many parents and children in overlooked parts of America resort to low-nutrient, high-calorie food from fast-food restaurants. Thus, we see the counterintuitive phenomena of communities struggling with both food insecurity and obesity.
Between children’s minds and bodies, food insecurity clearly has profound and long-lasting effects. Fortunately, there are a range of highly effective federal programs in place for families in need of nutritional assistance.