It’s an alarming fact: Roughly 16 million children in the United States live in households that struggle to put food on the table. It's called food insecurity; it may mean a child is often hungry, but it is not necessarily the same as going hungry.

Hunger is a physiological condition affecting each of us individually. Food insecurity means a person or family is living with limited or uncertain access to adequate food. They do not always have enough substantial food for an active and healthy life.

At particular risk are children from low-income working families and single parent households.

Inadequate food is not good for anyone, but it's especially bad for children. How a child is nourished in the first three years of life is the foundation on which their future physical and mental health, school performance, and overall economic success in life is formed. Lack of nutritious food threatens this foundation.

This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a new policy statement that recommends all pediatricians screen their patients for food insecurity. The policy statement identifies the short and long-term effects of food insecurity, and suggests that pediatricians familiarize themselves with local food resources for families and refer as needed. The policy also proposes that pediatricians advocate for government programs that support access to sufficient and nutritious food.

It's Not Necessarily About Poverty

The struggle with food insecurity can affect children anywhere. Not every family with inadequate food security lives in poverty. They are found in the suburbs and rural areas too, places that are often assumed to be immune to such problems.

Food insecurity and economic insecurity generally go hand-in-hand. Food insecurity is an economic and social condition of certain households. The people in these families may even be overweight, but lack proper nourishment — as anyone who has binged on cookies or French fries can easily imagine.

Quality fruits and vegetables are more expensive and less immediately satisfying than a bag of chips or fast food, but the poor nutritional value of these easy-to-get foods is what makes food insecurity damaging to health.

Who Is At Risk

Households with children have a much higher rate of food insecurity than households with no children. At particular risk are children from low-income working families and single parent households. Over 30 percent of families who struggle with food insecurity report that they have had to choose between buying food or paying for medicine or medical care. For many families, even small changes in income or expenses can quickly reduce the ability to purchase enough food.

The situation has improved since 2007, according to data released by the United States Department of Agriculture, thanks to federal nutrition programs like WIC, SNAP, and the school breakfast and lunch programs, but there are still millions of hungry children in the US.

For many families, even small changes in income or expenses can quickly reduce the ability to purchase enough food.

“The health effects of hunger on children are pervasive and long-lasting, which is why our new policy urges pediatricians to take action in and outside of the clinic to conquer food insecurity and promote child health,” said Sarah Jane Schwarzenberg, a lead author of the new policy. Malnutrition, not getting enough nutritious food early in life, can create problems for children that last into adulthood.

What's Behind The AAP Policy Statement
Here are the main reasons why the American Academy of Pediatricians has issued its statement raising the profile of food insecurity and its effects on children’s health:

  • Children who live in households that are food insecure, even at the lowest levels, get sick more often, recover more slowly from illness, have poorer overall health and are hospitalized more frequently.
  • Children and adolescents affected by food insecurity are more likely to be iron deficient, and preadolescent boys dealing with hunger issues have lower bone density. Early childhood malnutrition also is tied to conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.
  • Lack of adequate healthy food can impair a child's ability to concentrate and perform well in school and is linked to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems from preschool through adolescence.
  • “It will take all of us — pediatricians, parents, government leaders, educators — partnering together, to do our best to ensure that no child goes hungry in this country,” the AAP's President, Sandra Hassink, said in a statement on the policy.

    You can download “Promoting Food Security for all Children,” the AAP policy statement for free. It is published in Pediatrics.