Childhood Food Insecurity and Hunger….. in the Land of Plenty

My hope for all is that next Thursday you are fortunate enough to be seated around a table with family and/or friends, have a full belly and a grateful heart. Despite our own personal challenges and daily hassles that make life, well, “life,” when it comes down to it, we are an extremely fortunate country and have so much for which to be grateful. We take for granted daily luxuries that others in third world countries cannot even begin to fathom. And yet, despite our vast collective wealth and capacity for opportunity, millions of our fellow Americans will not be able to afford that turkey dinner next week, nor can they consistently count on being able to feed their children on a regular basis, as they live in households that are food insecure.

What exactly is food insecurity and is it the same thing as hunger? According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, food insecurity is defined as “…limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” Essentially, then, the term food insecurity provides insight into the “…economic and social contexts that may lead to hunger but does not assess the extent to which hunger actually ensues.” Currently, the USDA cannot identify the number of hungry Americans, or those who experience the “uneasy or painful sensation caused by lack of food” because there is no accurate measure of hunger itself.

What the USDA does know, however, is that last year 48.1 million Americans—of which nearly 16 million are children under 18—lived in households with inconsistent access to a sufficient amount of nutritious foods required to live a healthy life. We also know that 46.7 million people (15 percent of the U.S. population) lived in poverty, including 15.5 million (21 percent) children under the age of 18. While an undeniable connection between poverty and hunger exists, poverty alone is not the ultimate determinant of food insecurity. Unemployment and underemployment are the better predictors as many people living above the poverty line are considered food insecure and at risk of hunger.

According to Feeding America: Map the Meal Gap (2015), 21.9% (938,610) of all New York State children lived in food insecure households in 2013. New York ranks 25th among the nation. And, here’s a snapshot of the Central New York region:

County Food Insecurity Rate (full population) Population (under 18) CHILD Food Insecurity Rate Est. # Food Insecure


Cayuga 12.3% 16,966 22.3% 3,780
Cortland 13.6% 10,165 22.6% 2,300
Madison 11.8% 15,532 22.2% 3,450
Onondaga 13.5% 105,576 21.2% 22,350
Oswego 14.1% 27,549 26.1% 7,200
Tompkins 13.8% 16,432 20.0% 3,280

It is mind-boggling to me that, in our land of plenty, 42,360 of our local children are at risk of not being all that they should be able to be. Most of us understand that good nutrition is critical for children, especially in their first three years. But, here’s why:

Infancy & Development

Children growing up in food-insecure families are vulnerable to poor health and stunted development from the earliest stages of life.

  • Pregnant women who experience food insecurity are more likely to experience birth complications than women who are food secure
  • Inadequate access to food during pregnancy has been shown to increase the risk for low birth weight in babies
  • Food insecurity has also been linked with delayed development, poorer attachment, and learning difficulties in the first two years of life

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
  • may be at higher risk for chronic health conditions such as anemia and asthma
  • may have more frequent instances of oral health problems
  • may have a poorer 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 the following behavioral issues and social difficulties:

  • truancy and school tardiness
  • fighting, aggression, and bullying
  • anxiety, depression, inattentiveness, hyperactivity and mood swings

Thankfully, more than 21.5 million low-income children received free or reduced-price meals daily through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs last year. But, these two meals might be the only ones that some kids get. Parents may not take advantage of food assistance programs, so dinners and weekend meals might be non-existent or consist of convenience store items or fast food—which, in turn, puts kids at risk for obesity.

When I addressed the food insecurity-hunger-obesity link with my college health class, I saw lots of puzzled faces staring back at me. After more discussion on the subject of poverty, however, it made sense to them that stretched food budgets, no vehicle, limited nutrition education and a lack of access to fruits and vegetables may result in parents serving their children more processed or fast foods that are cheaper and more filling.

As such, it can be difficult to identify those hungry kids, the ones who are not getting regular meals or those who are starving for nutrients. Unfortunately, they are everywhere. They might be falling asleep in your classroom or seem disinterested. They might be the ones picking fights during recess. You pass them on the street, they’re in your churches. Please remember these children when giving thanks for your abundance.

Be well,

Program Coordinator, School Wellness




Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Feeding America: Map the Meal Gap, 2015

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