What If… addressing food insecurity two generations at a time

graphic-ig1-5-healthy-peopleFor many of us, summer conjures images of time spent with family and friends, barbeques, and picnics in the park. Unfortunately, in nearly 20% of households with children under the age of 6, food is not something taken for granted. Food insecurity or the inability of households to afford enough food for all members is linked to poor health for adults and children, greater need for special education services, and decreased work productivity. What if we lived in a nation free of food insecurity? What if every child had adequate nutrition on a daily basis? What if entire families were able to carry on with their daily life without the stress of financial burdens from extra health care needs associated with food insecurity? Envisioning this healthier nation requires us to keep our perspective broad – seeing young children through the lens of family well-being and the wider systems and policies that impact them.

New research from Children’s HealthWatch estimates that more than $1.2 billion dollars were spent on health care and education for young children living in families facing food insecurity in 2015. This cost includes special education for children ages 3-4 years old for conditions associated with food insecurity ($672 million), hospital stays ($516 million), dental services ($7 million), and ambulatory visits ($6 million). However, these estimates only account for the health-related costs of food insecurity for children under the age of five, a mere 6% of the total U.S. population. They do not include multigenerational costs associated with food insecurity for the remaining 94% of the U.S. population.

A wealth of evidence tells us that the health of populations is impacted by social, economic, and environmental factors. These factors all contribute to health inequalities over a person’s lifetime. Young children are vulnerable to food insecurity due to the fact that they experience household hardships during a critical period of growth and brain development. Most children also live within and depend on their families and thus children’s parental experiences and well-being also influence children. There are well-known factors like parents’ education and employment status and others less frequently recognized but just as important like parental mental health and life experiences. To help children, we need to also help parents so that together they can find a healthier and more stable way forward. Effectively reducing and eliminating food insecurity means also ensuring that parents and caregivers are physically and mentally healthy and thus better able to raise healthy children.

The most recent policy brief from Children’s HealthWatch provides multiple recommendations to address multi-generational factors affecting food security. Current federal food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) must be strengthened to acknowledge that food insecurity impacts not only children but entire families. Policies to increase state Earned Income Tax Credits, minimum wage, and the supply of safe, affordable housing can address some of the economic and environmental factors associated with food insecurity. When parents are not worrying about the next meal for their family, whether they will have a roof over their head, and whether they can afford household necessities, we life the burden of stress and improve the mental health and well being of families. With a two generation approach, these recommendations can positively impact the health of the children and parents.

Eliminating food insecurity is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve the health and well-being of our nation’s children. What if we lived in a food-secure nation? Widening our perspective to the life course and implementing a two generation approach to address social, economic, and environmental factors that affect food insecurity, we can make our what if nation a reality.


*Megan McInnis is a Masters of Public Health student at Boston University. She is completing a practicum placement with Children’s HealthWatch this summer.