Food insecurity and health impacts

Health concerns and behavior challenges resulting from inconsistent access to food.

Good health is dependent on the daily intake of vital nutrients over the lifespan. Unfortunately, far too many children and adults have faced or are currently facing periods of food insecurity. They are unsure where or when their next meal will be. The impacts on health, development and behavior call for attention, policies and community efforts to increase access and provide education and resources.

Michigan State University Extension nutrition education and community food systems programming care about food insecurity because we seek to help children, adults and families improve dietary quality and access to food. Providing information, hands-on demonstrations and practical applications can help gain access to community/agency resources and stretch food dollars for nutrient dense foods.

A key Kids Count report released recently in July 2013 brought the issue of poverty and food insecurity to light. Sixteen indicators of child wellness (economic wellbeing, education, health and family/community) were ranked and compared to 2005 data. Ten of the indicators showed improvement, however three of the four indicators for economic wellbeing worsened (children in poverty, children whose parents lack secure employment and children living in households with a high housing cost burden). The fourth was unchanged (teens not in school and not working). Additionally, two indicators in the area of family and community worsened (children in single parent families, children living in high poverty areas).

Share Our Strength reports 9.8 million kids—more than ever—receive free/reduced price breakfast on an average day, but nearly 10.6 million eligible kids go without. Also, only one in seven kids who get free/reduced price school lunches receive summer meals.

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.
  • Children who are food insecure may be at higher risk for chronic health conditions, such as anemia and asthma.
  • Children who are food insecure may have more frequent instances of oral health problems.
  • Food insecurity among young children is associated with poor physical quality of life, 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.
  • When they are in school, children who are food insecure may experience an increase in an array of behavior problems including: Fighting, hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, mood swings and bullying.

Food access, education and provisions of community resources bring action around food insecurity and are vital for improving childhood nutrition. Starting a local food policy council that brings community stakeholders together to address food access, education and resources is one way a community can address food insecurity and improve childhood nutrition.