Food Insecurity Is A Serious Problem In America, And Has Long-Term Effects On Our Children

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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I complain all the time that my kids eat me out of house and home. “They are always starving,” I mutter, rolling my eyes as I get another cheese stick out of the fridge, and bitching and moaning if I have to make another run to the grocery store. But as much as I have every right to complain about how difficult parenting can be, and how downright demanding my hungry kids can be, I definitely need to spend more time remembering to practice gratitude for all my kids have.

The fact is, although my family has struggled financially at certain points, my children have never had to wonder where their next meal will come from. They have never gone to bed with that sour, empty feeling of hunger in their bellies.

In gathering information to write about this article, I was struck not only by how lucky I am, but how very sheltered I am as well. You see, I live in a major metropolitan city where plenty of children do go to bed hungry each night and whose parents wake up each morning wondering if the same thing will happen the next night too. Literally thousands and thousands of families experience hunger every single day in cities and towns all over America. But I have the privilege not to see it or think about it much at all.

The same is true of most Americans: Because childhood hunger is not our experience, we can choose not to see it or think about it much at all. The great majority of Americans do not experience “food insecurity” (defined as having limited or no access to reliable, sufficient quantities of food). In fact, according to the USDA, the majority of American households — 87%, or 109 million of us — enjoy “food security.”

But just because the majority of Americans do not deal with this issue doesn’t mean it isn’t an enormous concern and living nightmare for others. In 2015, for example, 12% of U.S. households experienced food insecurity at some point. That’s 16 million households — 3 million of them with children — unable to secure food for their families and many going without. Even one child going to bed hungry isn’t something my heart can take, but millions of them?

Well, fuck this shit. Seriously, the fact that this is 2017, and America — one of the wealthiest countries in the world — is letting this many children and families starve is totally unacceptable. It’s not something I can wrap my head around for one second. And I have basically zero tolerance for anyone who places blame on these families for not trying hard enough, being lazy, or any other such nonsense. And if anyone says that it is not the government’s job to intervene here, well, fuck you too. For real. I cannot.

Of course, just the mere fact of any child not having enough to eat is reason enough for all of us to be angry and heartbroken, but a recent study shows that food insecurity has long-term effects on children as well. Researchers at Georgetown University and the University of Virginia looked at how instances of food insecurity in the early years of life impacted kids’ behavioral and academic performance when they started kindergarten. Their findings were published in the journal Child Development in March of this year, and though the results may not surprise you (hint: food insecurity had negative effects on these kids even years later), it is important to be aware of research like this and to help spread the word that hunger in children is something we must take seriously.

The researchers found that food insecurity at any point affected kids negatively when they started kindergarten, but that hunger in the earliest years of life (the infant and toddler years) seemed to have the most damaging impact. “Timing of food insecurity matters,” Anna Johnson, assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University, and lead researcher of the study, tells Science Daily. “In our study, food insecurity in infancy and toddlerhood predicted lower cognitive and social-emotional skills in kindergarten, skills that can predict later success in academics and life.”

Johnson says that while food insecurity in the preschool years had negative impacts, these associations weren’t as strong as they were in the infant and toddler years. The researchers also found that the more frequent the instances of food insecurity there were, the greater impact it had on kindergarten performance. “Having more episodes of food insecurity in early childhood — that is, having three episodes of food insecurity versus one or two — was linked with poorer outcomes in kindergarten across all areas of development,” Johnson explains.

Again, none of this is rocket science. It stands to reason that growing up poor with overburdened parents and having episodes of extreme hunger would have a negative impact on children and their entire families. The researchers surmise that families who need to be hyperfocused on things like how to find funds for foods can’t necessarily give their children the social and academic skills they need for future schooling. Not only that, but nutrient deficiencies — especially when babies and toddlers’ brains are forming — can have lasting biological damage.

So what can we do about all of this? Anna Markowitz, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia, and the study’s co-author, urges food assistance programs to increase their budgets so that more assistance can be offered to families-in-need. Of course, the way that money is allocated in these programs isn’t always up to researchers and concerned citizens like you and me. But we do have the power to urge our politicians to increase their budgets for these programs. (And the way politics is going these days, we are going to need to shout at them to ensure that cuts aren’t made to programs that benefit the needy.)

Beyond that, I urge you to get involved. Seek out organizations like Feeding America and volunteer or donate. Even a few dollars is enough to provide a hot meal, and each night that a child goes to bed with the full tummy instead of an empty one is huge, and has the potential to change the course of their life.

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