Infants and toddlers being raised in food insecure homes are more likely to suffer poor health, including illness severe enough to require hospitalizations, according to a new study published in the June 2004 issue of the Journal of Nutrition.
Food insecurity is defined as limited or uncertain access to enough nutritious food. Measured in the study by United States Household Food Security Scale standards, it is an important indicator of a household’s health and well-being.
Researchers compared children ages three years and younger living in food insecure households to children living in food secure homes. Those exposed to food insecurity had approximately 30% greater odds of hospitalization and 90% greater odds of being characterized in fair/poor health.
“The results of this report are very disturbing,” said John Cook, PhD, lead author and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM). “Modern science shows poor nutrition weakens a child’s immune system, predisposing them to recurrent infections, and impairs their ability to learn. Our findings also show stresses accompanying food insecurity are harmful to a child’s health even if the child is not underweight.”
Researchers also found while receipt of Food Stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) may moderate effects of food insecurity on child health, they do not appear to be sufficient to eliminate these effects.
“Just 60% of eligible children receive food stamp benefits,” said Carol Berkowitz, MD, co-investigator of the study and pediatrician at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
“Given that 17% of American households with children are food insecure, the national implications of these findings are staggering. The failure of nutrition safety-net programs to reach all children in need may be contributing to growing national healthcare costs.”
Doctors say results of this study indicate a need for additional research on the health impacts of food insecurity on children, and on the role of assistance programs in eliminating these adverse health effects.
Study data were collected at six urban medical centers over three years on 11, 539 children whose adult caregivers agreed to participate in the study. The medical centers, located in Baltimore, Boston, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., are part of the Children’s Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Program (C-SNAP), a multi-site consortium of senior child health professionals with particular interest and expertise in the impact of nutrition on children’s health and development.