Expert Commentary

Individual, family and neighborhood characteristics and children’s food insecurity

2012 study in the Journal of Applied Research on Children on the characteristics of children and families living in food-insecure neighborhoods in the U.S.

In 2010, some 14.5% of American households — 17.2 million — could not always furnish enough food for family members, according to a USDA report. This figure has remained at elevated levels following the Great Recession in 2007-08, and it is even higher for households with children. The consequences of such food insecurity can be devastating for children’s health and development. While previous studies on this issue have largely focused on individuals and households, food insecurity can strike certain communities and neighborhoods more than others.

A 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Research on Children, “Individual, Family, and Neighborhood Characteristics and Children’s Food Insecurity,” examines individual, family and neighborhood characteristics of food-insecure children. The researchers, from Rice University, based their work on the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), a nationally representative dataset of 20,000 kindergarteners from 1998 to 1999.

Findings of the report include that:

  • In both kindergarten and third grade, 8% of the children were classified as food insecure. Only 5% of white children were food insecure, while 12% and 15% of black and Hispanic children were food insecure, respectively. In third grade, 13% of black and 11% of Hispanic children are food insecure compared to 5% of white children.
  • Over 20% of children whose mothers held less than a high school education were food insecure at kindergarten. This figure is significantly higher than for children of mothers with a high school degree (8%) and children whose mother’s attained a college degree (1%).
  • A typical food-insecure neighborhood is approximately 25% Hispanic and 16% black. The average food-insecure child lives in a neighborhood where more than a quarter of households are lead by women.
  • Children in the Hispanic/foreign-born neighborhoods are also far more likely to be food insecure: 16% in kindergarten and 13% at third grade.

“Policies that focus on levels of food insecurity within neighborhoods or communities, rather than a strictly individual or household-level focus, may have more far-reaching effects on curbing food insecurity,” the researchers conclude. “For example, a focus on improving access to affordable and healthy foods in poor neighborhoods could reap dividends for decreasing household food insecurity.”

Because the data analyzed were slightly older, the researchers note the following about the study’s relevance to contemporary America: “From 2000 to 2007, household food insecurity rates were closer to 11%, undergoing a spike from 2007 to 2008 to roughly 14% in 2009 and 2010, which was the highest level since the USDA surveys began in 1995. Thus, it is likely that our estimates, from data before the increase in food insecurity began, are conservative and reflect a better food environment for households with children in the U.S. than can be expected today.”

Tags: children, nutrition, food, race, Hispanic, African-American

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