How Hunger Impacts Health
In a third of food-insecure homes, one or more family members sometimes go hungry. Tangela Fedrick's household, which includes her children, 2-year-old Tasir and 3-year-old Asyiah, plus Fedrick's own teenage brother and sister, falls into this category. "There's never enough food," says Fedrick, 22, a single mom in West Philadelphia. She wants her family to be well-nourished, but there are weeks every month when that's not possible. "By the time I buy diapers, pay for day care and get my transit pass so I can go to work and school, and pay co-pays on my kids' asthma medication, there's nothing left," she explains. "So if all we have is cereal or toast, that's what we have for dinner. A lot of the time, that's what we eat for breakfast and dinner."
The person most likely to go hungry in homes like hers? Mom. "As long as I know my babies ate something, I'll be fine," insists Fedrick, who regularly skips meals. "I can drink some water and wait it out." But experts agree that children can still suffer even when they're not the ones who are hungry. "Parents deprive themselves to feed their children, and now you have an irritable, exhausted mother who can't cope as well," says Deborah Frank, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. "When we hear yelling in the waiting room, it's usually because the mom, child, or both is really, really hungry," says Dr. Frank, who keeps graham crackers and milk on hand to give to children and mothers who come to her clinic.
Mothers in food-insecure households are also three times more likely to report depressive symptoms than mothers who get enough to eat, according to a policy action brief from Children's HealthWatch, which studies how economic conditions affect children under age 3. Depressed moms are less likely to show affection, read stories, play games, and offer other forms of interaction, which are so critical to a young child's developing brain. Breastfeeding can help buffer infants against the negative effects of food insecurity, but only when Mom gets enough to eat: A malnourished nursing mom will have trouble producing enough breast milk, and studies show it often lacks critical nutrients like vitamins D, B12, and A.
When the situation is so dire that children do miss meals, the consequences continue to snowball. "The scary thing is that a child's mental development will be impacted long before you see an effect on growth," notes Dr. Frank, founding principal investigator of Children's HealthWatch. When babies and toddlers don't eat enough, their body tries to conserve heat for physical needs, so they become less active. "They sleep more and explore less, which means they miss out on the crucial learning that a normal child experiences," she explains. "Once this ground is lost, it's very hard to get it back."
Hungry infants and toddlers are also more likely to catch infections, have anemia or other health problems, and be hospitalized than children who are well-nourished. Dr. Frank sees a handful of cases each year where desperate parents overdilute infant formula to make the cans last longer. "This causes low blood salt, which can lead to seizures," she notes. "Parents might also give their baby cow's milk or even soda, both of which are cheaper than formula but can lead to growth failure and other health problems. Once a child becomes malnourished, she needs 50 percent more quality nutrition than a typical child does in order to regain her health."
While it may seem paradoxical, hunger also plays a key role in another major public health issue: childhood obesity. "Parents may buy fruits and vegetables until their disposable income is drastically reduced, but then they have to turn to very low-cost foods that are higher in fat and calories," explains Dr. Redlener. Poor neighborhoods are more likely to lack grocery stores, farmers' markets, and other affordable sources of healthy foods. Even if you can find produce for sale in your neighborhood, you might not be able to afford it: A study from the University of Washington found that junk food can cost an average of $3.32 per 1,000 calories, compared with a whopping $27.20 per 1,000 calories for nutritious foods. "I often hear things like, 'Those people can't be hungry -- they're fat!'" says Janet Poppendieck, Ph.D., author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America. "But the least healthy, most obesity-inducing calories in our society are often the cheapest."