Homeless Children: Update on Research, Policy, Programs, and Opportunities. Hunger and nutrition

05/15/2010

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey (Nord, 2009), 15.8 percent of households with children were food insecure at some time during 2007. In many of those households, parents were able to protect children from food insecurity, but in 8.3 percent of these households, children too were food insecure, typically due to reductions in the quality and variety of meals. In 0.8 percent of households, children had very low food security: they had been hungry when the household could not afford food, skipped a meal, or did not eat for an entire day because of lack of money for food. Food insecurity is associated with poorer health, higher hospitalization levels, more behavioral and emotional problems, and lower cognitive achievement and achievement gains. Food insecurity is higher in households with some characteristics that are common among homeless families, such as African American race; single female-headed households; and incomes below the poverty line, although more than two thirds of families with food insecurity among children had at least one full-time worker (Nord, 2009).

Poor nutrition appears to be a cause of poor child outcomes and not simply a marker of other conditions. In multiple experimental studies, most in other nations, provision of nutritional supplements to pregnant mothers and to infants improved children’s developmental outcomes. Longer term supplementation during pregnancy and early childhood had positive effects on adolescent cognitive development 12 years after the supplements were discontinued. Temporary food shortages affected social involvement and classroom attentiveness during a drought in Kenya and mathematics skills assessed several years later (Sigman, 1995).

Weinreb and colleagues (2002) examined hunger and its impact on child health and mental health in a sample of homeless and low-income housed children (some of whom would meet the ED definition of homeless) ages 2–18 in Worcester, MA. Among preschool age children in both groups, 51 percent experienced moderate hunger and 8 percent experienced severe hunger. Severe hunger was more common among homeless children and was associated with high levels of chronic illness and internalizing behavior problems. More school-age children in the housed group experienced hunger than did homeless children. Severe hunger among school-age children was linked to chronic illness and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

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