Understanding the Effects of Food Insecurity on Child Cognitive Outcomes and Well-Being

March 24, 2022

PIBBS Volume 8 Issue 2 (October 2021 Release) Journal Cover
PIBBS Volume 8 Issue 2 (October 2021 Release)

Food insecurity, or lack of access to sufficient foods for an active and healthy lifestyle, affects more than 10 million children in the US. This number has further increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among minoritized children. In a new paper published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled “Food Insecurity: What Are Its Effects, Why, and What Can Policy Do About It?” authors Caitlin Hines, Dr. Anna Markowitz, and Dr. Anna Johnson review the effects of food insecurity on both children and parents and make evidence-based policy suggestions to address them.  

Food insecurity negatively impacts several facets of child development, with greater consequences when experienced earlier in childhood. It is linked to externalizing problems such as poor behavioral conduct and insecure attachment (unconfident, avoidant behaviors) in young children, and delinquency in school-aged children. There are also associations with internalizing problems such as poor interpersonal emotional skills and increased anxiety. 

Furthermore, food insecurity is linked with lower cognitive skills in math and reading, as well as more limited improvement in these skills over a school year. The authors note that more research is needed to examine the robustness of effects on cognitive skills.  

The paper suggests two potential causal pathways that may explain these detrimental effects. First, the direct pathway model holds that food insecurity leads to poor nutrition, resulting in worse health and behaviors. Supporting evidence includes vitamin deficiencies being linked to low energy and impaired neurodevelopment, and protein deficiency resulting in less energy to engage in surroundings and fewer available resources for brain development.  

Second, the indirect pathway model suggests that food insecurity leads to family stress and emotional strain on the parents, inhibiting the ability to optimally engage with children. Food insecurity is associated with parental stress, anxiety, and depression, which predict worse cognitive and socioemotional outcomes in children. This is particularly concerning as parent-child interactions are crucial to early child development.  

Together, the direct and indirect pathways likely function in tandem, and underscore that familial food insecurity, not just child food insecurity, has negative effects on child development. 

Federal food assistance programs that can address these issues include Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Preliminary evidence of the effectiveness of these programs in increasing positive developmental outcomes is encouraging, though limited. Increased research is therefore necessary to better provide evidence-based suggestions to policymakers.  

Based on the current research, the authors recommend expanding programs, such as WIC, to reach younger children, as this is a key developmental period vulnerable to effects of food insecurity. Outreach to disadvantaged groups, decoupling assistance from immigration status, and investment in multilingual services are additional ways to increase accessibility.   

Policymakers should also consider ways to reduce family stress associated with receiving these benefits.  For example, benefit delivery via electronic systems would make benefits easier to use and allow for families’ access benefits throughout the month.  

Overall, the authors conclude that food instability remains a public health crisis and has important consequences for socioemotional and cognitive development in children and implementation of policy changes that can address the issues.