Child Development

The potential consequences of food insecurity for children

Good nutrition, particularly in the first three years of life, is important in establishing a good foundation that has implications for a child’s future physical and mental health, academic achievement, and economic productivity. Unfortunately, food insecurity is an obstacle that threatens that critical foundation. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 2015, 13.1 million children under 18 in the United States lived in households where they were unable to consistently access enough nutritious food necessary for a healthy life. Although food insecurity is harmful to any individual, it can be particularly devastating among children due to their increased vulnerability and the potential for long-term consequences.

Infancy & Development

Children growing up in food-insecure families are vulnerable to poor health and stunted development from the earliest stages of life.[i]

  • Pregnant women who experience food insecurity are more likely to experience birth complications than women who are food secure.[ii]
  • Inadequate access to food during pregnancy has been shown to increase the risk for low birth weight in babies.[iii]
  • Food insecurity has also been linked with delayed development, poorer attachment, and learning difficulties in the first two years of life.[iv]

Health Concerns

Studies have found that food insecurity has been associated with health problems for children that may hinder their ability to function normally and participate fully in school and other activities.

  • Children who are food insecure are more likely to require hospitalization.[v]
  • Children who are food insecure may be at higher risk for chronic health conditions,[vi] such as anemia,[vii],[viii] and asthma.
  • Children who are food insecure may have more frequent instances of oral health problems.[ix]
  • Food insecurity among young children is associated with poorer physical quality of life,[x] which may prevent them from fully engaging in daily activities such as school and social interaction with peers.

Behavioral Challenges

Children who experience food insecurity may be at higher risk for behavioral issues and social difficulties.

  • Food insecure children may be at greater risk of truancy and school tardiness.[xi]
  • When they are in school, children who are food insecure may experiences increases in an array of behavior problems including: fighting,[xii] hyperactivity, aggression,[xiii] anxiety,[xiv] mood swings, and bullying.[xv]

[i] Heinig, M.J., & Dewey, K.G. (1996). Health advantages of breastfeeding for infants: A critical review. Nutrition Research Review, 9, 89-110.

[ii] Laraia, B.A., Siega-Riz, A., & Gundersen, C. (2010). Gestational weight gain, and pregnancy complications. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110, 692-701.

[iii] Borders, A.E.B., Grobman, W.A., Amsden, L.B., & Holl, J.L. (2007). Chronic stress and low birth weight neonates in a low-income population of women. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 109, 331-338.

[iv] Zaslow, Bronte-Tinkew, Capps, Horowitz, Moore, and Weinstein (2008) Food Security During Infancy: Implications for Attachment and Mental Proficiency in Toddlerhood. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 13 (1), 66-80.

[v] Cook, Frank, Leveson, Neault, Heeren, Black, Berkowitz, Casey, Meyers, Cutts, and Chilton (2006) Child food insecurity increases risks posed by household food insecurity to young children’s health. Journal of Nutrition, 136, 1073-1076.

[vi] Kirkpatrick, McIntyre, and Potestio (2010) Child hunger and long-term adverse consequences for health. Archive of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, 164 (8), 754-762.

[vii] Eicher-Miller, Mason, Weaver, McCabe, and Boushey (2009) Food Insecurity is associated with iron deficiency anemia in US adolescents. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90, 1358-1371.

[viii] Skalicky, Meyers, Adams, Yang, Cook, and Frank (2006) Child Food Insecurity and Iron Deficiency Anemia in Low-Income Infants and Toddlers in the United States. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 10 (2), 177-185.

[ix] Muirhead, Quiñonez, Figueiredo, and Locker (2009) Oral health disparities and food insecurity in working poor Canadians. Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, 37, 294-304.

[x] Casey, P.H., Szeto, K.L., Robbins, J.M., Stuff, J.E., Connell, C., Gossett, J.M., & Simpson, P.M. (2005). Child health-related quality of life and household food security. Archives Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 15, 51-56.

[xi] Murphy, Wehler, Pagano, Little, Kleinman and Jellinek (1998) Relationship Between Hunger and Psychosocial Functioning in Low-Income American Children. Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 37 (2), 163-170.

[xii] Slack and Yoo (2005) Food hardship and child behavior problems among low-income children. Social Service Review, 75, 511–536.

[xiii] Whitaker, Phillips, and Orzol (2006) Food insecurity and the risks of depression and anxiety in mothers and behavior problems in their pre-school-aged children. Pediatrics, 118, e859–e868.

[xiv] Slopen, N., Fitzmaurice, G., Williams, D.R., & Gilman, S.E. (2010). Poverty, food insecurity, and the behavior of childhood internalizing and externalizing disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 49,444-452.

[xv] Huang (2010) Does food insecurity affect parental characteristics and child behavior? Testing mediation effects. Social Science Review, September, 381-401.


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