Impact of Hunger in the United States

Four consequences of hunger for children and families in the US include poor academic performance, physical health issues, mental health issues, and social and behavioral problems.

You may also be interested in our other post where we provide a high-level report overview on Hunger and Food Insecurity in the United States.

1. Poor Academic Performance

  • According to multiple sources, food insecurity can lead to poor academic performance in children.
  • Some issues that are more likely to occur in kids that are hungry include repeating the first grade in elementary school, exhibiting behavioral and attention problems at school, lacking necessary language and motor skills, and falling behind in maths and reading tests.
  • If a child comes hungry to the kindergarten, they are likely to lag behind and stay behind in the future.
  • It was observed that it is especially important for academic performance to eat in the morning. However, as many as 60% of children from low-income families have come to school without breakfast. It is one of the reasons why many schools are implementing breakfast programs, in addition to lunch programs.
  • The research by No Kid Hungry shows that 80% of teachers have seen students lose concentration due to hunger.

2. Health Issues

  • Experiencing hunger or food insecurity is associated with lower overall physical health, which may prevent the child from fully engaging in daily life. Some of the most common health issues include oral problems, anemia, asthma, and more frequent hospitalization.
  • Children from food-insecure households are twice as likely to have iron-deficiency anemia. Among other consequences, it is linked to issues with language comprehension and emotional development.
  • A study of US children in the year before kindergarten and in the second grade showed that those from food-insecure households were 18% more likely to develop asthma.
  • At the same time, according to Feeding America, food insecurity is one of the reasons why low-income families may experience health issues, together with social isolation, high medical costs, and low wages.
  • Food-insecure women are also more likely to experience complications while giving birth. For instance, counties with high food insecurity rates have slightly more low-birthweight infants compared to the national average (10% against 8%).

3. Mental Issues

  • Research shows that food insecurity can result in several mental disorders in children, including depression, anxiety, inattention, and hyperactivity. At the same time, there are studies that show a connection between food insecurity and the Generalized Anxiety Disorder in mothers.
  • According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, children from households with some degree of food insecurity are between 1.26 and 1.59 times more likely to have a mental disorder, depending on the severity of food insecurity. This means that while 14% of children in food-secure households have mental issues, the figure rises to 19% for kids in households with very low food security.
  • Additionally, children in households with very low food security were over 2.5 times more likely to have a mental disorder with severe impairment.
  • As for adolescents, the likelihood of having a mental disorder is also greater for those living in food-insecure households, compared to those in food-secure households. It multiplies by between 1.33 to 2.55 times, depending on the level of food insecurity.
  • Please note that while the research is from 2016, it was cited by a recent research paper. At the same time, more recent quantitative data on the issue is not available in research papers, reports, and articles by national media or websites for non-profit organizations.
  • At the same time, according to a 2018 research paper, mothers in food-insecure households were more likely to have depressive symptoms than those who had enough to eat, which led to fewer interactions with their children.
  • Additionally, a study of 503 food bank recipients in Texas found that those living in households with very low food security, in which even children were missing meals, were most likely to develop eating disorders. 20% of them reported vomiting after they ate.

4. Social and Behavioral Problems

  • Hunger and food insecurity have been linked with numerous behavioral problems in children, such as aggression and behavioral outbursts. Behavioral professionals are reporting that since the COVID-19 pandemic started, many households have become food-insecure, which has led children to have more behavioral outbursts. They have also regressed on milestones such as potty training.
  • Children who experience food insecurity, even for short periods of time, are 127% more likely to have behavioral problems.
  • Additionally, experts believe that food insecurity negatively affects family life. Studies have shown that adolescents from food-insecure households are less likely to have supportive home environments, experience positive parenting, and parent interactions.
  • At the same time, both adolescents and their parents from food-insecure households are likely to have poor self-efficiacy, engage in misconduct, make unhealthy choices, have risky sexual behaviors, and have a range of other social problems.

Research Strategy

After reviewing multiple reports on food insecurity and hunger, as well as websites for non-profit organizations, articles in national, political, and government media, and research papers, we concluded that quantitative data on the consequences of hunger for US families and children is scarce. While we included the available data points (at least one for each impact), the availability was very limited, especially in up-to-date sources.
Please also note that most articles and reports use the terms “hunger” and “food insecurity” interchangeably. While the meaning differs, we decided to include findings and data points for both terms. We assumed that a consequence of food insecurity would also be a consequence of hunger, though it may be more severe. Whenever possible, we included differences based on levels of food insecurity.

Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at The Digital Momentum with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.

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