For Children, Food Insecurity Means Not Only Hunger but Also Stress, Sadness

Young child reaching for strawberries on a cutting board on a kitchen counter.

New Research from Cindy Leung

Assistant Professor of Nutritional Sciences

Parents who experience food insecurity might think they're protecting their children from their family's food situation by eating less or different foods so their children can be spared.

But a new study led by University of Michigan School of Public Health researchers shows that children 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," said Cindy Leung, lead researcher in the study scheduled for publication in the March issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

"Our study shows that children are not only aware that their family is food insecure, but they're also psychologically impacted by it."

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 said, adding that while those programs are very 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 said she hopes the study will add to a growing line of research looking at the connections between 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 said.

Funding for the study was supported by the National Institutes of Health.