A Bad Economy’s Ripple Effect on Kids

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Food insecurity among youth has impacts beyond hunger pangs, leading to health and behavioral problems that often require intervention from mental health, juvenile justice, special education and other services, according to health and economic experts who gathered in Washington last month.

“Economies are written first on children’s bodies,” said Dr. Deborah Frank, founder and principal investigator of the Children’s Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Program, a pediatric research consortium that monitors the health and well-being of poor children.

Speaking at a news conference organized by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), Frank said her young patients are increasingly showing hunger-related complaints, such as nausea and lethargy, which she attributes to families’ worsening economic circumstances. More children are being hospitalized for poor health, Frank said, recalling a similar situation during the severe economic downturn of the early 1980s.

The two organizations released a report that says rising food insecurity – defined as a person or family with limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods – not only hurts individual children and families, but affects birth outcomes, early childhood health and learning, and long-term educational success.

The report, Reading, Writing and Hungry: The Consequences of Food Insecurity on Children, and on our Nation’s Economic Success, was produced for the Partnership for America’s Economic Success, a project managed by Pew Charitable Trusts.

Food insecurity increases the chances that children will need special education services, the report says. Elementary school children severely stressed about food are four times more likely than their peers to need mental health counseling and seven times more likely to get into regular fights, the report says.

Families who are food insecure often consume highly processed and sugary items, which leads to health problems like childhood obesity and tooth decay, the authors write.

FRAC President Jim Weill said new government data show that more than 36.2 million Americans fought off hunger in 2007, compared with 35.5 million in 2006. (See Report Roundup, page 29.) FRAC’s profile of food and nutrition programs across the nation was also released in late November, in its State of the States: 2008 publication.

Jared Bernstein, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, said at the news conference that any stimulus package approved by Congress should extend unemployment insurance and provide additional food stamp assistance.

For the long term, Bernstein and others called for more resources for programs that help food-insecure children, youth and families, including child and out-of-school-time nutrition, child care food initiatives and the Special Supplemental Nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children.

Contact: FRAC, http://www.frac.org; Partnership for Success, http://www.partnershipforsuccess.org.