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Confronting child hunger

Confronting child hunger

Effects and causes of food insecurity in children, plus strategies to end it.

The United Nations (U.N.) aims to help end global hunger by 2030.

Yet its 2022 report on food security and nutrition says we’re moving backward from this target.

Access to nutritious food is particularly important in childhood, when children’s bodies and minds are developing, and they’re more vulnerable to disease.

But children are still going hungry or not getting the nutrients they need.

And this isn’t an issue that only affects low-income and developing countries. For instance, community food banks that supply donated food have existed in the U.K. since at least the 1990s, while food poverty has long been part of public debate in the U.S.

In this article, several leading experts highlight the causes and effects of child hunger, and examine strategies for ending food insecurity in children. We also look at the relationships between hunger, malnutrition, and obesity.

Hunger is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the U.N. as “an uncomfortable or painful physical sensation caused by insufficient consumption of dietary energy.”

But children who experience hunger won’t necessarily experience these physical sensations.

“Hunger is a ‘fuzzy’ concept, and not easily measurable meaningfully,” says Dr. Francis Andrianarison, Senior Economist at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and author of the article “Unravelling the linkage between food security, poverty reduction, and education for sustainable development.”

“Child hunger can sometimes be thought of as childhood food insecurity,” adds Dr. Michael Long, co-author of Holiday Hunger in the U.K. and Co-Editor of The Sociological Quarterly.

All hungry people are food insecure, but not all food insecure people are hungry
Dr. Francis Andrianarison

“There’s a spectrum, from children just not having enough to eat of anything to children having some food, but the food they have access to might be largely from donated sources like food banks,” says Dr. Claire Thompson, Reader in Food Inequalities and Health in the Department of Health and Social Work at the University of Hertfordshire, and co-author of Food Deserts and Food Insecurity in the U.K.

“This may not be of good quality or very fresh. And it might be high in salt, fat, and sugar and in some cases might even be unsafe food.”

Hunger vs. malnutrition

This example of food lacking in nutrients highlights the link between hunger and malnutrition.

“Malnutrition is – as the name suggests – not getting the right kind of nutrients,” says Dr. Dianna Smith, an Associate Professor in the School of Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Southampton, and co-author of Food Deserts and Food Insecurity in the U.K.

“All hungry people are food insecure (malnourished), but not all food insecure (malnourished) people are hungry,” adds Dr. Andrianarison.

“To provide enough food for children, some parents must rely on calorie-dense, processed foods that, while temporarily alleviating the feeling of hunger, do not provide adequate nutrition,” says Dr. Long.

“So you can fill up your tummy on things like potatoes and rice and all sorts of especially starchy foods, which tend to be a lot cheaper,” adds Dr. Smith.

“But they’re not going to give you the kind of wonderful nutritional value of a diet full of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.”
Linking hunger and obesity

This is why hunger and food insecurity can lead to weight gain and obesity in some households, particularly in high-income countries.

“There’s a kind of obesity/malnutrition paradox,” says Dr. Thompson.

“You can have too many calories. You can be obese. But you can also be lacking in nutrients because most of the food you have access to is energy-dense, but it’s nutrient-poor.”

“If we see someone who’s bigger, we wouldn’t associate that with a lack of nutrients. But it can be that, and that makes it a bit of a thorny issue – to say that a person who’s overweight hasn’t got good enough food can feel counterintuitive.”

Child hunger statistics

Globally, more than 1 in 5 children under 5 years old are stunted, which is often a sign of long-term malnutrition
Almost 9 in 10 stunted children (89%) are from low-income and lower-middle-income countries
Almost 8 in 10 overweight children (77%) are from lower-middle-income or upper-middle-income countries
Around 45% of deaths in children under 5 years of age are linked to malnutrition
1 in 4 South African households reported running out of money for food in 2018
In 2019, around 2.4 million U.S households with children experienced times when children were inconsistently fed or inadequately nourished
There are more than 2,500 food banks in the U.K.
Meanwhile, the U.K. throws away almost 10 million tons of food a year

Child hunger has many short-term and long-term impacts. And it’s not just kids and their parents and carers who are affected – there are societal repercussions too.
Effect on children

Hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity affect children socially, mentally, and physically. They also affect the quality of their education and learning.
Physical health

A negative impact on physical health is an obvious symptom, as Dr. Andrianarison highlights:

“Wasting is the most prevalent, acute, and potentially fatal manifestation of malnutrition. Children suffering from wasting are underweight and have weakened immune systems, which exposes them to the risk of developmental delays, sickness, and mortality.”

There are longer-term consequences for children’s physical health too, especially in high-income countries where children are eating foods high in calories but low in nutrients to stave off hunger.

If children are hungry and malnourished, you’re more likely to see excess weight, poor quality diet, and poorer health outcomes linked to diet in the immediate term and long term,” says Dr. Smith.

“We know that children who are obese are more likely to become obese adults,” she adds.

This can lead to other health complications when children reach adulthood, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Some children are even developing serious health issues before they become adults.

“In richer countries, we are seeing type 2 diabetes more often in children now,” highlights Dr. Smith.
Social and psychological effects

Hunger and food insecurity can lead to social isolation, says Dr. Long:

“Many activities that children partake in, such as play dates with other children, involve food. A food insecure household cannot afford to invite their children’s friends over to play because there is usually an expectation of snacks or meals being provided.”

Meanwhile, the stigma of qualifying for aid can make the problem of child hunger worse in regions where it affects smaller groups of the population.

“An example would be children who qualify for free school meals because their household income level is below a certain threshold,” says Dr. Long.

“However, they do not take advantage of the free lunch because they don’t want to be identified and labeled as ‘poor.’ They forgo eating, rather than potentially exposing themselves to the stigma that comes with being poor.”

Hungry children have shorter attention spans and less ability to concentrate compared with non-hungry children

“Hunger and food insecurity are really corrosive for your well-being,” adds Dr. Thompson.

“If you’re worrying about where your food’s going to come from, you can’t enjoy it.”
Learning and education

Hunger and food insecurity significantly affect children’s education.

“Research frequently has shown that hungry children have difficulty in school and do worse on a number of educational metrics compared to students who do not suffer from food insecurity,” says Dr. Long.

“Hungry children have shorter attention spans and less ability to concentrate compared with non-hungry children. Hungry children simply do not ingest enough healthy calories for their bodies to function properly and therefore put them in a position to be successful in the classroom.”

“This is why there has been so much movement in England to have more breakfast clubs and an increase in the provision of free school meals,” adds Dr. Smith.
Effect on adults

Adults in a household are likely to feel the physical effects of food insecurity before the children, as Dr. Smith highlights:

“Parents will skip meals and cut back on the size of their own meals to reduce the impact on their children.”

“This just shifts the hunger problem around the household, and there are many repercussions for adults and parents who are hungry,” adds Dr. Long.
Psychological effects on adults

One repercussion is that adults may then experience similar mental health and well-being issues to their children, including anxiety and depression.

“There’s a clear link between food insecurity and mental health in both children and adults,” says Dr. Smith.

“In the research we do, parents will talk about how much they worry about their children’s diet.”

The stigma attached to food insecurity can also prevent adults from seeking help for their families.

“Sometimes, they’re afraid to ask,” says Dr. Thompson.

“Wouldn’t you be a bit scared if you went to a social worker or a teacher or a doctor and said, ‘I can’t feed my kids?’ There’s that fear that someone will take them away and that’s quite powerful.”

Effect on society

The direct impacts of hunger and food insecurity on children and adults lead to longer-term indirect effects on society.

These include the costs of treating associated health conditions such as tooth decay, obesity, and diabetes, as well as the effects of any disruption to children’s learning and education.

“Reducing malnutrition is essential for accelerating economic growth,” says Dr. Andrianarison.

“At the country level, malnutrition affects human capital and results in loss of productivity that delays national development.”

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