For kids, food insecurity is about more than hunger

"Food is more than just the calories. There's so much more to food than when you don't have enough," says researcher Cindy Leung. (Credit: Getty Images)

For children, food insecurity means not only hunger, but also sadness and stress, a new study shows.

Parents who experience food insecurity might think they’re protecting their kids from their family’s food situation if they eat less or different foods so their kids don’t have to.

But, children may know more about food insecurity—the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food—than their parents give them credit for.

“The long-held assumption is that parents will do whatever it takes to protect their children from food insecurity,” says Cindy Leung, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan and lead researcher of the paper in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“Our study shows that children are not only aware that their family is food insecurity, but they’re also psychologically impacted by it.”

“There’s so much more to food than when you don’t have enough. It impacts your physical health and your mental well-being…”

The researchers talked to 60 children, ages 7 to 14, from the San Francisco Bay area. The children discussed worrying about not having enough food and about their parents’ well-being, anger, and frustration about the lack of food; embarrassment about their family’s situation; strain on the family’s dynamics due to food insecurity; and sadness over not having enough food.

“We think of food insecurity as just a food problem, so our interventions are to provide food—whether that is through the food from food banks, free meals at school, or an EBT card to purchase food at the grocery store,” Leung says, adding that while those programs are important, they’re not enough.

“Food is more than just the calories. There’s so much more to food than when you don’t have enough. It impacts your physical health and your mental well-being, and our interventions to address food insecurity should focus beyond just the provision of food.”

Leung says she hopes the study will add to a growing line of research looking at the connections among food insecurity, psychological stress, and chronic disease.

“Part of the reason we did this study was trying to understand the extent to which children are psychologically affected by food insecurity, how they cope with the stress, and whether stress is a potential mechanism for how food insecurity impacts children’s health and developmental outcomes,” she says.

The National Institutes of Health supported the work.

Source: University of Michigan