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How Food Insecurity May Harm 5-Year-Olds

Small children whose families don't always know how or if they can buy food are at risk of developing behavior problems.
Sammy Mack
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

When families don’t know where their next meal will come from, it can be especially hard on young children. A new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior shows that 5-year-olds who experience food insecurity are more likely than other kids to have behavior problems.

“Our study reinforces the concept that food insecurity is really bad for children, so we should avoid it at all costs,” says Dr. Christian King, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Management and Informatics at the University of Central Florida and one of the authors on the article, “The Unequal Impact of Food Insecurity on Cognitive and Behavioral Outcomes among 5-Year-Old Urban Children.”

King and his team studied a survey of 5,000 families with young children. They looked at their access to food, and they lined it up with questions about the kids’ cognitive and behavioral development—like whether the kids fought and screamed, and if they felt anxious or lonely.

“We wanted to know whether food insecurity affects children differently,” says King.

What they found was that 5-year-olds in food-insecure homes are much more likely to have behavior problems. If they already have behavior problems, food insecurity appears to make those issues worse.

According to the study authors, that has negative implications for how kids do in school and later on in life. And with an estimated 1.1 million kids in Florida whose families aren’t sure how or if they’ll be able to buy food, there’s a big group at risk of experiencing these problems.

King says the findings are a reason to strengthen programs like the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (sometimes called, “food stamps”) that prevent kids from going hungry.

You can find more on the study here.

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Sammy Mack
Public radio. Public health. Public policy.