Food Insecurity's Lingering Impact on Children

Published on
July 12, 2013

For a nation that produces more food per person than any other in the world, the United States has a major problem with hunger — and it only grew worse during the recent recession and its aftermath.

Close to 50 million people in the U.S. are living with “food insecurity,” meaning they don't always have adequate nutrition for an active and healthy life. Children have been hit particularly hard, with about a quarter living in families that don’t always know where their next meal is coming from; nearly half receive food stamps at some point during childhood.

It’s a painful reality in the short-term, but perhaps even more devastating when it comes to lingering health effects. Recent research suggests that a number of factors converge for low-income families and create a paradoxical set of health issues, leading to both malnutrition and obesity, as well as a slate of other chronic diseases.

Some point first to the “food stamp cycle” — the pattern of having enough food in the beginning of the month followed by food scarcity toward the end — as a potential trigger of the body’s “feast or famine” reflexes. Add stress, anxiety and depression ­— all common when there’s not enough food on the table — and mental health conditions are ripe for overeating at times when food is plentiful. Additional NIH-funded research suggests that the human body metabolizes food differently in moments of stress, making the risk higher for the type of visceral fat accumulation closely linked to chronic disease.

Of course, the final piece of the equation is often an over-reliance on cheap, energy-dense, processed foods that are likely barren of real nutrients. A recent study found that both participants in the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) and low-income non-participants were below national recommendations for whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish and potassium. Meanwhile, both of these groups exceeded recommended limits for processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, saturated fat and sodium.  

This combination would likely be dangerous in any conditions. But as American waistlines expand and the nation’s economy continues its slow recovery, an important question remains: Is there something unique about this moment in American history — with all its stress, unemployment and abundance of cheap food — that’s creating a particularly toxic environment for American children? And given that eating habits often continue into adulthood, what will the implications be for the future?

Through the 2013 National Health Journalism Fellowship and with support from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, the PBS NewsHour will produce a series of reports on-air and online that will focus on this research. The NewsHour will also explore the current pressures driving low-income families to eat unhealthy foods and what’s being done in some communities — economically, politically and socially — to set a new course.

Photo: One-year-old Jaeliece Ortiz enjoys fruit juice her mother just brought home after shopping with her SNAP (food stamps) card. Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images.