Many children in the United States don’t have enough to eat. In 2014, 15.3 million children in the United States were food insecure (about 1 in 5). These children lived in households that were unable to always provide adequate food.
Low-income families report that eating healthily is especially difficult because fresh fruits and vegetables in their neighborhoods are rare, expensive, and of poor quality.
Hunger hurts children in multiple ways.
Low food security and hunger can contribute to toxic stress – the strong, unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system.
A lack of healthy food can lead to malnutrition, health problems caused by a nutritionally-deficient diet.
People tend to spend their limited mental reserves on resources that they lack, and so hungry children focus on food, which can lead to neglect of other areas of life such as schoolwork.
Food insecurity is frequently stigmatized through media messages and public discourse. Families often work to keep their food insecurity hidden, and children may feel stigmatized when using free and reduced lunch programs and other social services.
Studies show that food insufficiency is associated with higher prevalence of poor health conditions, including stomachaches, headaches, and colds; and that severe hunger can predict chronic illness among both preschool- and school-age children. Hunger-related toxic stress can negatively affect brain development, learning, information processing, and academic achievement in children.
Malnutrition in the first years of life is especially harmful, impacting physical growth, decreasing resistance to disease, limiting the size and functioning of children’s brain structures, and stunting intellectual capacity.
Severe hunger is associated with anxiety and depression among children. Research shows that families’ lack of sufficient food, irrespective of their income, is associated with depressive disorders and suicidality in adolescents.
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