We’ve all experienced hunger—that gnawing reminder to eat. But for the 40 million Americans, including more than 12 million children, who live with food insecurity, the sensation isn’t temporary or easily satiated. It is persistent, pernicious, and damages everything it touches, from behavior and brain chemistry to physical health and societal infrastructure.
This is how hunger threatens our minds, our bodies, and our communities.
- When your stomach is empty, hunger dominates your thoughts.
- Soon, it darkens your mood, hinders your concentration, and contaminates your interactions with others.
- At an early age, it can change the way you develop and forever shape your sense of security.
- This is what happens when hunger takes over your brain.
The boy who dozes in class, the girl who “forgot” her lunch again, the friend who loses his temper a bit too easily—the underlying causes of those issues may seem unrelated. But for Nikki Johnson-Huston, the telltale signs of hunger are hard to miss.
As a young child, Johnson-Huston worried constantly about getting enough to eat. Some of her earliest memories are of food pantries and her mom paying for groceries with food stamps. For the better part of one dismal year, soup kitchens served as her most reliable source of food. The uncertainty took a toll: She zoned out in school. She internalized her anger. She obsessed over food—even in her sleep. “I would have nightmares,” recalls Johnson-Huston, now 44. “I would be surrounded by food but every time I would reach for it, it would disappear.”
People might think of hunger as a physical sensation—a nagging feeling in the gut, a growl in the intestines—but the phenomenon, as people like Johnson-Huston can attest, is experienced just as powerfully in the mind. Specifically, there’s a small group of neurons in the brain that can detect an empty stomach and low fuel reserves. When they do, they activate a relentless motivational drive to correct it. “All [a person] really can think about is getting food, which means none of their other energy is available for any of the other things in life,” says John Butterly, a professor of medicine at Dartmouth.
Hunger is not inherently bad. On the contrary, it serves as a crucial physiological alarm, telling the body what it needs to survive. Hunger becomes problematic, however, when it can’t be diminished, as is the case for the millions of food insecure Americans—individuals we likely encounter unknowingly every day—who regularly don’t have enough healthy food for their entire household.
More than just a drive, hunger is also a psychological state, one that has a profound effect on the way a person sees the world. People joke about being “hangry”—that is, feeling irritable as a result of hunger. But according to Kristen Lindquist, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, hunger activates many of the same stress-related hormones as emotions, which is why it can change your mood for the worse. Indeed, Johnson-Huston remembers often feeling prickly around other people. “If you’re physically uncomfortable, it’s hard to be emotionally comfortable,” she says. “If you’re not emotionally comfortable, it’s hard to have positive interactions with people.”
The impact of hunger-related stress on the brain is powerful at any age. But experienced early on—especially during the first three years of life, when a child’s brain is developing rapidly and highly sensitive to chemical influences—it can actually shape the brain’s architecture. Prolonged or extreme activation of the body’s stress response systems results in toxic stress, which alters the size and structure of key areas of the brain. The result is a compromised mental foundation, which, when combined with hunger’s everyday effects, puts kids at a severe learning disadvantage that is hard to reverse.
The numbers tell a devastating story. Click to learn more
The Perils of Summer Hunger
For many food-insecure families, food-assistance programs provide a critical bulwark against immediate calamity. But that stasis can quickly be upended during the summer, when kids leave school and frequently lose access to government-subsidized meals. The numbers tell a devastating story:
During the school year, 22 million students rely on free and reduced-price meals funded by the United States Department of Agriculture.
When school is out for summer 18 million children lose access to USDA meals.
Of these 18 million, 9 million Low-income children live in communities that aren’t eligible to operate an open summer meals site, and 1.5 million low-income children live in rural communities, where operating the USDA’s summer meals program often isn’t feasible or sustainable.
As a result of reduced access to meals programs: Children gain weight three times faster during the summer versus the rest of the year, due to reliance on cheap and unhealthy food.
It’s also hard to undo hunger’s impact on a child’s relationship with food, per Hilary Seligman, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco and the senior medical advisor for Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization. Studies have shown that food insecurity produces disordered eating behaviors, including binge eating, nighttime eating, and secretive eating. Engrained early on, those behaviors are hard to shake, even decades later.
Johnson-Huston was spared some of hunger’s worst long-term effects. When she turned 10, she moved in with her grandmother. She ate better and excelled in school. Today, Johnson-Huston is an attorney living in Philadelphia, and it’s been decades since she’s worried about getting her next meal. But hunger, as one food insecure woman put it, is like “a bird nesting in your head.” For Johnson-Huston, that bird has never really left.
“You can give someone a sandwich. It’s not as easy to give them their sense of security back,” she says. “I’m always aware of the fact that I could be hungry again.”
- When you’re hungry, life becomes a series of impossible choices.
- Visit the doctor or buy groceries? Eat expired food, unhealthy meals, or nothing at all?
- The anxiety of these choices takes a toll on your psyche, while their outcomes take a toll on your health.
- This is what happens when hunger takes over your body.
According to Robin Dickinson, a family medicine doctor based in Englewood, Colorado, a sick person is more likely to become food insecure. The opposite, she holds, is also true: a food-insecure person is more likely to suffer from poor health. It’s a dynamic she understands from both professional and personal experience.
- 30% +
Source: Feeding America: Map the Meal Gap
Six years ago, Dickinson was the sole breadwinner in her family of four when she suffered several small strokes within the span of a few days. Shortly thereafter, she went back to work, but felt perpetually exhausted and dizzy. This meant fewer hours at the office and, ultimately, a significantly reduced income. Soon, it wasn’t enough to pay for both healthy food and health insurance.
Benefits from a nutrition assistance program allowed Dickinson to purchase fruit and vegetables for her kids, but she skimped on her own diet. Within a few weeks, she was subsisting on rice, oatmeal, and potatoes, and feeling, quite simply, “crappy all the time.” The vicious cycle of food insecurity and deteriorating health she’d long seen in her patients had quickly become her own reality.
Dickinson wasn’t calorie deficient. But by relying on inexpensive, less nutritious food, she lacked many of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that make up a balanced diet. On top of that, she was dealing with a newfound but persistent anxiety around feeding her family, and a degree of financial insecurity that, one month, forced her to choose between paying the heating bill or fixing the family’s only toilet. “I remember just sitting in my car sobbing, like, ‘I can’t do this,’” she says.
It often only takes one unexpected event—a health diagnosis, a layoff, a repair bill—to ensnare a household in food insecurity’s debilitating one-two punch of nutritional deficiency and psychological stress. But unlike people experiencing severe malnutrition—whose distended bellies, hollow cheeks, and sunken eyes present glaring bodily distress signals—people living with food insecurity tend to look no different from anyone else, even in the trained eyes of physicians. That means a root cause of their poor health is at risk of slipping under the radar.
*Of the 12.9% of food insecure people in the United States, 27% are above the threshold of 185% poverty which denies them access to Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) (below 185% poverty), and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (below 130% poverty)
Source: Feeding America: Map the Meal Gap, U.S. Census Bureau
Hunger’s consequences on health—which can begin before a child is even born—are well documented. People who are food insecure are more likely to suffer some of the most costly chronic diseases—including hypertension, coronary heart disease, and diabetes, among others—and even everyday conditions like headaches, stomachaches, and common colds. Toxic stress, a common force in food insecure households, makes matters worse. When a body’s stress hormone levels are activated for long periods of time, it degrades the immune system. “If your immune system is less functional, that means you’re less likely to resist an immunological threat. And when you get it, you’re less able to fight it,” says Maureen Black, a pediatrics professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
While hunger is undoubtedly a health issue, food distribution isn’t always adequately integrated into the healthcare system. That’s changing. In 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics began recommending that doctors screen their child patients for signs of hunger and better familiarize themselves with food assistance programs. Those programs, in turn, are better integrating with health providers. In New Mexico, health clinics can refer patients experiencing hunger and chronic illness to the Healthy Food Center at Roadrunner Food Bank, which is part of Feeding America’s network of food banks. In Mississippi, the EversCare Clinic operates a food pantry in partnership with the Mississippi Urban League and the Mississippi Food Network, which is also a part of Feeding America’s network.
Today, at the safety net clinic where she primarily treats people who are uninsured or underinsured, Dickinson takes that directive seriously—not just as a professional best practice, but as a personal imperative. “When I make recommendations, or when I screen people for hunger, it’s from a place of humility,” she says, “from having been there.”
- Hunger is experienced by individuals, but its consequences ripple far beyond.
- School performance suffers, workplace productivity declines, and the basic building blocks of a healthy society lose their strength.
- This is what happens when hunger takes over your community.
The mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, is on a “radical” mission to revitalize his city by investing in “the inherent dignity of every citizen.” Of course, you can’t talk about dignity without talking about hunger.
In Hinds County, where Jackson is located, 25 percent of the population is food insecure, nearly double the national rate. Meanwhile, food deserts and food swamps dominate the landscape. In Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s strategic plan for the city—which aims to disrupt a feedback loop of poverty, underperforming schools, blighted neighborhoods, and failing infrastructure—increasing access to nutritious food, especially for children, is the first order of business. “These are cycles of humiliation that lean into one another and create a problematic environment,” says Lumumba.
That environment, he adds, impacts the whole community.
Jackson has a relatively high rate of food insecurity, but Lumumba’s assessment of his city’s challenges speaks to a fundamental truth: When some members of a population can’t achieve their full potential, it affects an entire society’s well-being. That reality is born out not only in Jackson, but across the entire country, where food insecurity exists in every county and congressional district, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study. As John T. Cook and Ana Paula Poblacion wrote in their 2016 study, “Estimating the Health-Related Costs of Food Insecurity and Hunger,” “Humans are social, interdependent beings, and our health, strength, well-being, and prosperity depend on the public welfare and strong public infrastructure.”
*The total annualized additional dollar amount that food-insecure individuals report needing, on average, to purchase just enough food to meet their food needs. This amount is based on responses in the Current Population Survey and the USDA assumption that individuals in households that are food insecure experience food insecurity, on average, seven months out of the year. This amount has been adjusted to reflect local food prices and relevant taxes.
Source: Feeding America: Map the Meal Gap
What’s more, according to Feeding America researchers, hunger is expensive. Treating diseases and health conditions attributable to household food insecurity costs the healthcare system $77.5 billion annually. The indirect costs are no less detrimental. In workplaces, for instance, hunger contributes to absenteeism. And when hungry employees show up to work on an empty stomach, they contribute to a decrease in productivity known as presenteeism.
Food insecurity has a cost for education, too. In a handful of states, where schools are funded based on average daily attendance rather than total enrollment, schools lose money every time a student is absent. Community college students with food insecurity are more likely to drop out.
But the biggest cost of hunger may be difficult to quantify. As Poblacion and Cook put it, hunger is a social phenomenon, which “erodes basic trust in and respect for social relationships, institutions, and the people within them.” A community in which some members lack that trust and respect are likely missing some of the “glue” binding the public together.
For Lumumba, combating hunger seems to be as much about fortifying that glue as it is about improving the city’s schools and reducing poverty. “We’re not looking at the growth and development of this city from the standpoint of great, big edifices to be built in a nice, pretty city. We’re worried about the souls that reside in this city,” he says.
In Jackson, Lumumba’s plan to fight hunger hinges on two initiatives: Jackson Meals Matter, a program focused on increasing food access for the city’s children, and Fertile Ground, a campaign funded by a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies donation, which will create, among other things, a downtown food market where people can pay based on their ability.
In the short term, Lumumba plans for these initiatives to reduce the rate of food insecurity by 25 percent. But ultimately, he won’t be satisfied until every citizen in his city—and his country—is fed. “We’re living in a place of scarcity when we actually exist in a world which has more abundance than ever,” he says. “There’s no excuse for hunger at this point.”