Who Experiences Food Insecurity?
As of 2020, the federal poverty threshold was $26,200 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A 2017 Feeding America report found that “nearly 40 million people in the U.S. earned incomes less than the poverty line. In addition… nearly 1 in 8 live in households with limited access to adequate food during the year due to lack of money and other resources.” The Children’s Defense Fund found that in 2020, 1 in 6 children (nearly 12 million) in America live in poverty, making them the poorest age group in the country.
Just as certain identity groups are more likely to experience poverty in the U.S., they are also more likely to experience food insecurity. “Latinx, African American, and immigrant families experience higher rates of food insecurity than White families,” says Dr. Abrams. Feeding America reports that, “although half of food-insecure households are White, they represent 1 in 11 White households in the U.S. compared to nearly 1 in 5 African American and 1 in 6 Latinx households who are food insecure.”2
In the State of America’s Children 2020 report, the Children’s Defense Fund noted that, “Children’s physical health and brain development depend on them being well-fed, particularly in the earliest years of life. Hunger and malnutrition jeopardize children’s health, development, education and career readiness.”
Dr. Abrams agrees. “Food insecurity causes physical, emotional and psychological problems for children, and can be included in the list of Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACEs] that impact a child’s development. Kids are very sensitive to family food insecurity.”
It can be helpful for pediatricians to distinguish between food shortage and food stress, Dr. Abrams adds. “We’ve found that about 5-10% of families actually run out of food over the course of a month,” he explains. “But the worry about running out of food is much more prevalent and causes high levels of stress, which affects children emotionally and psychologically. Pediatricians need to start with the simple question: are you ever worried about running out of food?”
Dr. Abrams says treating children’s worry and stress is just as important as making sure they get fed. ACEs researchers found that continued exposure to toxic stress, which can begin before birth, has serious consequences for brain development. Toxic stress impairs the brain’s ability to regulate emotions, and the stage that precedes regulation: emotion identification.3 Children experiencing toxic stress may be unable to name their emotions or self-soothe as adults.4
Pediatricians should also be on the lookout for food insecurity among college students, according to Abrams. “At UT Austin, the rate of food insecurity among college students is 15%,” he says. “And we’re seeing higher numbers at other large public universities. Food insecurity on campuses can be hard to identify, so pediatricians should be screening for it if possible.” A study at University of California (UC) found that 39% of UC students had low or very low food security. Food-insecure students reported a lower GPA and more financial hardship than their food-secure peers.5