19 May 2010

Hunger in America: Reports Confirm Escalating Crisis among Children; Federal Programs Effective, Important

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service recently reported that 49 million Americans, including nearly 17 million children, are food insecure - which means they do not always know where they will find their next meal.

The new data reinforces recent findings from a comprehensive research study conducted by Feeding America, the nation’s leading hunger-relief organization, reflecting a dramatic increase in requests for emergency food assistance from food banks across the country.

Feeding America Study Confirms Hunger Crisis

Conducted last September, the Feeding America study shows that its network of food banks experienced an average increase in need of nearly 30 percent in 2008, the year during which this data was collected. While the numbers vary geographically, some food banks are reporting increases of more than 50 percent in requests for emergency food assistance over the year prior.

“It is tragic that so many people in this nation of plenty don’t have access to adequate amounts of nutritious food,” said Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America.

Although these new numbers are staggering, it should be noted that they reflect the state of the nation in 2008. National socio-economic indicators, including the high unemployment rate and the number of working-poor, would lead one to assume that the number of people facing hunger will be even higher when 2009 data is released.

The Implications of Food Insecurity

From birth, the intake of vital nutrients is essential to the growth and development of a healthy individual. Good nutrition, particularly in the first three years of life, is important in establishing and maintaining a good foundation that has implications on a child’s future physical and mental health, academic achievement, and economic productivity. Unfortunately, food insecurity is an obstacle that threatens that critical foundation.

In the United States, more than one out of six children lives in a household with food insecurity.

Inadequate Nutrition or Food Insecurity Has Adverse Affects on:

Physical Health: Insufficient nutrition puts children at risk for illness and weakens their immune system. The immature immune systems of young children, ages birth to 5, make them especially vulnerable to nutritional deprivation and as a result, the ability to learn, grow, and fight infections is adversely affected. Research reveals, in comparison to food secure children, children from food insecure families are 90 percent more likely to be in fair or poor health and have 30 percent higher rates of hospitalization. Not only does the lack of sufficient nutrition take a toll on a child’s health but has economic consequences for families as well. The average cost for a single hospitalization for pediatric illness is $11,300.

Behavior and Mental Heath: The lack of adequate nutrition affects the cognitive and behavioral development of children. Child development is the manner in which children attain skills in memory, cognition, language, motor ability, social interaction, behavior and perception. Children without reliable food are more likely to experience irritability, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating compared to other children. Research has shown that food insecurity was associated with grade repetition, absenteeism, tardiness, anxiety, aggression, poor mathematics scores, psychosocial dysfunction and difficulty with social interaction among 6 to 12 year old children (Watson, Davison 2007). Food insecurity has also shown to be associated with suicide and depressive disorders among 15 to 16 year old children after controlling for income and other factors.

Child Development:
Food insecurity puts children in jeopardy of developmental risk in areas such as language, behavior, and movement, which subsequently increases the likelihood of later problems with attention, learning, and social interaction.

School Readiness and Achievement:
Children from food insecure households are likely to be behind in their academic development compared to other children which ultimately makes it difficult for them to reach the same level of development as their fellow food secure peers.

Assistance for Vulnerable Children is Available

Fortunately, there are federal nutrition assistance programs available to help low income families with meeting the nutritional needs of their children and protect them from the consequences of malnutrition and under nutrition, about which research consistently bears out the efficacy and positive outcomes.

Nevertheless, during periods of budget shortfall and recession, school nutrition programs often get cut, which is unfortunate considering the valuable safety net they provide to some of country’s more vulnerable young people.

Economists and social scientists alike point to the positive return on investment in early childhood nutrition programs; without which, the social, moral and fiscal costs of a generation of unhealthy and underachieving students are likely to be exponentially more.

A few of the critical federal programs:

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Research includes a 2005 study (Fronillo, Jyoti, and Jones) that shows an association between improved math and reading scores during Kindergarten to third grade among children participating in SNAP in comparison to children who did not participate or who dropped out of the program during the same time period.

National School Lunch Program: Research shows that children participating in the program consume more vitamin B12, calcium, protein, magnesium, riboflavin, zinc and fiber compared to children not participating in the program. Participation in the program has been shown to be associated with higher average intake of nutrients and lower intake of added sugars; participants are more likely to consume milk, vegetables, meat and other protein-rich foods than non-participants.

Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC):
There is vast amount of research that participation in the WIC program increases the intake of nutrients among children. Research reveals that WIC decreases the prevalence of anemia and iron deficiency among children. Participation in the program increases the intake of vitamin B6, folate and iron.

These minerals are important because vitamin B6 assists the body’s use of protein, carbohydrates and fat, folate assists in producing and maintaining new cells and iron assists in transporting oxygen and maintaining a healthy immune system.

Physicians have rated the health status of children participating in WIC as better than children not participating in the program. WIC participation also increases the chances that children will get immunized and assist children in retrieving preventive health services.

School Breakfast Program (SBP):
Research by Bhattacharya, Currie, and Haider 2004 found that the SBP assists in improving the quality of calories consumed, decreasing the percentage of calories from fat and reducing the probability of low fiber intake. In addition, the program reduces the probability of low intake of vitamins C and E, folate, iron, and potassium. Research by Meyers Sampson, Weitzman, Rogers, and Kayne found that children who eat breakfast at school have better standardized achievement test scores, reduced tardiness, and improved attendance. Numerous other studies make the correlation between children who eat breakfast have improved academic, behavioral, and emotional functioning.

Clearly, nutrition is not only vital for the growth and development of children but has direct and indirect implications for the education, health, and productivity of our nation as a whole. Of particular concern are children of color who face disproportionately higher rates of poverty, food insecurity, and lower academic achievement.

Nutrition is and will continue to be an important component to the health and prosperity of the country. Consequently, it is crucial to ensure that our nation continues to invest in federal nutrition programs which provide a critical safety net, anything short of which is unconscionable.