food insecurity

In a recent study, researchers determine how food insecurity may affect children’s behaviour and cognition.

Food insecurity may be an issue that seems far-fetched for us to be worried about in the developed world. With many of you readers engaging in this article on your laptops or high-tech smartphones, you may ask yourself “how is this article relevant to me?” Defined as the inability to get access to food for a healthy life, food insecurity has been an issue impacting 41.2 million American lives as of 2016. Of these, 12.9 million are American children.

It is no secret that nutrition is a vital part of our overall health. This is especially true for children. Researchers Hobbs and King sought to determine how food insecurity affected five-year-old urban children in their daily lives. They were interested in specifically determining how nutritional barriers during their development would affect their behaviour in the future—would these children grow to be aggressive? Timid? Or perhaps emotionally unbalanced? Hobbs and King wanted to understand how these adversities paved these children’s’ futures. They published their findings in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour.

 These researchers used the method of secondary analysis, using data from a previous study conducted in the year 2000 known as the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing (FFCW) Study. This was a longitudinal study that had a sample of 5,000 couples in 20 major cities in America with populations exceeding 200,000 people.

The couples in this sample all had two things in common:

  1. They had a child born between the years 1998-2000
  2. They were all impacted by food insecurity

So, out of the 41.2 million Americans affected by food insecurity, who is most impacted?

Researchers in the FFCW Study was able to gather interesting information through four rounds of interviews with the parents of these children. Through these interviews, researchers were able to track the development of each infant until they reached their toddler years. Research assistants were able to assess how sociocultural factors of each parent contributed to the family’s risk of facing food insecurity.

The relationships between the child’s parents (married, common law, dating, or separated) seemed to have an impact on the child’s risk for food insecurity. Researchers found an overwhelming increase in risk for food insecurity for families with single mothers.

With close to three quarters of women in the study being African American or of Hispanic descent, the study also showed that certain ethnic groups were at greater risk for food security. Researchers also found a link between the level of education and risk for food insecurity among these parents, with close to two-thirds of mothers in this study having completed a high school diploma as their highest level of education.

Now that researchers knew the risk factors of food insecurity, they took to determine how this barrier to health affected the behaviour of children. Researchers would access what they would call “internalizing behaviours” and “externalizing behaviours.”

Internalizing behaviours are reflected in a person’s expressions and sociability. Some internal behaviours include being shy, refusing to talk and sulking. Externalizing behaviours, on the other hand, include bullying others, being disobedient and projecting a mental state through actions; these actions are usually aggressive in nature.

Studies found that the impact of food insecurity seems to be the largest among the children with the most internalizing and externalizing behavioural issues. Food insecurity seems to have a little measurable impact on children who have minor “issues” with their behaviour.

What these researchers have shown us is that even if you do not identify as the group at-risk of food insecurity, it is important to recognize its profound effects. No matter what the risk, we must acknowledge that cognitive development is key for our children to grow into healthy individuals. Knowing this, we must take it as our responsibility to fund school breakfast programs and social programs to equalize the playing field.

Written by Nikki Khoshnood, BHSc Candidate

Reference: Hobbs, S (MEd)., King, C (PhD)., The Unequal Impact of Food Insecurity on Cognitive and Behavioural Outcomes among 5-Year-Old Urban Children. (2018). Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour.

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