Food insecurity among children is a serious policy issue in the United States, with 17 percent of children (12.5 million kids) residing in food insecure households in 2017. Research shows that even after controlling for other factors correlated with poverty, food insecure children are more likely to face a host of health problems, including, but not limited to, a higher risk of some birth defects, anemia, lower nutrient intake, cognitive problems, higher levels of aggression and anxiety, poorer general health, poorer oral health, and a higher chance of being hospitalized, having asthma, or experiencing behavioral problems.

With the support of the Food and Nutrition Service in USDA, in 2011 UKCPR launched its Research Program on Childhood Hunger. UKCPR competitvely awarded 34 grants totaling $5.25 million to conduct innovative, rigorous, policy-relevant research on the underlying causes and consequences of food insecurity among children in the United States. To date, this initiative has resulted in over 40 peer-reviewed publications across a host of disciplines, showing that while poverty status is an important contributor to childhood food insecurity, it by no means is the only contributor. The funded research shows that other leading factors include poor parental physical and mental health, immigrant status, complex family structures, lack of access to quality child care and child support, and exposure to lack of regular feeding during summer school breaks, among others. This research is summarized in a research report by James Ziliak and Craig Gundersen published at the The Future of Childrenand below are the discussion papers underlying this research initiative.



Do Walmart supercenters improve food security?

This paper examines the effect of Walmart Supercenters, which lower food prices and expand food availability, on household and child food insecurity. Our food insecurity-related outcomes come from the 2001-2012 waves of the December Current Population Study Food Security Supplement. Using narrow geographic identifiers available in the restricted version of these data, we compute the distance between each household’s census tract of residence and the nearest Walmart Supercenter. We estimate instrumental variables models that leverage the predictable geographic expansion patterns of Walmart Supercenters outward from Walmart’s corporate headquarters. Results suggest that closer proximity to a Walmart Supercenter improves the food security of households and children, as measured by number of affirmative responses to a food insecurity questionnaire and an indicator for food insecurity. The effects are largest among low-income households and children, but are also sizeable for middle-income children.


Child age and gender differences in food security in a low-income, inner-city population

A long literature in economics concerns itself with differential allocations of resources to different children within the family unit. In a study of approximately 1,500 very disadvantaged families with children in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio from 1999 to 2005, significant differences in levels of food allocation, as measured by an indicator of food “insecurity,” are found across children of different ages and genders. Using answers to unique survey questions for a specific child in the family, food insecurity levels are found to be much higher among older boys and girls than among younger ones, and to be sometimes higher among older boys than among older girls. Differential allocations are strongly correlated with the dietary and nutritional needs of the child. However, the differences in allocation appear only in the poorest families with the lowest levels of money income and family resources in general, and most differences disappear in significance or are greatly reduced in magnitude when resources rise to only modest levels. Differences in food insecurity across different types of children therefore appear to be a problem primarily only among the worst-off families.


Paternal incarceration and children's food insecurity: A consideration of variation and mechanisms

Despite growing attention to the unintended intergenerational consequences of incarceration, little is known about whether and how paternal incarceration is related to children’s food insecurity, an especially acute and severe form of deprivation. In this article, I use data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a cohort of urban children born to mostly unmarried mothers, to examine the relationship between paternal incarceration and food insecurity among young children. Results from the most rigorous modeling strategy, propensity score matching models that further adjust for all covariates, indicate that recent paternal incarceration is associated with an increased likelihood of current food insecurity (at age five), an increased likelihood of onset into food insecurity (between ages three and five), and a decreased likelihood of exit from food insecurity (between ages three and five), but only among children living with fathers prior to incarceration. These associations are partially explained by changes in the parental relationship occurring after the onset of paternal incarceration. Taken together, the findings highlight the salience of parental relationships in linking paternal incarceration to children’s food insecurity and have a number of implications for public policy.

Childhood stress: A qualitative analysis of the intergenerational circumstances of child hunger

Adverse childhood experiences, including abuse, neglect, and household instability affect lifelong health and economic potential. While relationships between household food insecurity and caregiver's childhood exposure to abuse and neglect are underexplored, preliminary evidence indicates that caregivers reporting very low food security report traumatic events in their childhoods that lead to poor physical and mental health. Building on this evidence, this study investigates how adverse childhood experiences are associated with the intergenerational transmission of household food insecurity. Understanding the associations between mothers' adverse experiences in childhood and reports of current household food security allows researchers, advocates, and policymakers to comprehensively address the intergenerational transmission of hunger.

New evidence on why children's food security varies across households with similar incomes

This project examines why very low food security status among children is different across households with very similar measured resources. Controlling for measures of income-to-needs, we examine whether elements in  the environment, household characteristics,  or  behaviors  are  systematically  correlated  with  VLFS  among children. We use different measures of income-to-needs, including those averaged across years to capture “permanent” income (or to average out measurement error) and measures that include income after taxes and transfers. Our analysis uses the Current Population Survey  (across many years, matched December to March),  the American Time Use Survey (matched to the December CPS), the National Health and Nutrition  Examination  Surveys  (1999;2010),  and  the  Panel  Study  of  Income Dynamics.  We  find  that,  no  matter  how  we  control for  income-to-needs,  certain characteristics appear to be systematically correlated with VLFS among children. In particular,  mental  and  physical  disabilities  of  the  household  head  are  strongly correlated  with  VLFS  among  children.  The presence of  teenage  children,  holding other  aspects  of  household  size  and  composition  constant,  predict  VLFS  among children, suggesting that larger children require more food. Finally, participating in transfer  programs  is  correlated  with  VLFS  among  children,  suggesting  that  these households  are  in  the  “system.”  These patterns suggest pathways for future research and future policy actions to address VLFS among children.

Neighborhood food infrastructure, economic shocks, and very low food security among children

Concern about spatial access to food retailers and food assistance resources has increased in recent years, placing greater importance on understanding how connections to the local food resource infrastructure shapes food security. This is especially true during the Great Recession era, during which time a greater incidence of economic shocks has contributed to rising food insecurity and rising food assistance caseloads. Using data from the Michigan Recession and Recovery Study (MRRS), a panel survey representative of working-age adults in the Detroit Metropolitan Area, this project explores two primary research questions related to food security of low-income households. First, how does access to the local food resource infrastructure relate to the risk of food insecurity? Second, to what extent is the experience of unemployment associated with increased risk of food insecurity? Across most measures, we find that many vulnerable population groups have greater or at least comparable spatial access to food resources as less vulnerable populations groups. We also find that in some instances closer proximity to SNAP-certified supermarkets or grocery stores is negatively associated with food security, meaning households that are closer to supermarkets and small grocery stores are more likely to report food insecurity, than those that are further away. Lower levels of education, experience of unemployment, and the experience of financial hardship over the last year also are broadly associated with greater risk of food insecurity.

Effects of maternal depression on family food insecurity

Theory suggests that adverse life events—such as unemployment or health shocks—can result in food insecurity, which has increased substantially in the U.S. over the past decade alongside the obesity epidemic. We test this proposition by estimating the effects of a specific and salient mental health event—maternal depression during the postpartum year—on child and family food insecurity. Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Birth Cohort, we estimate the effects of maternal depression on food insecurity using both single- and two-stage models, and explore potential buffering effects of relevant public assistance programs and supports. We find that moderate to severe maternal depression increases the likelihood that children and households experience any food insecurity—by between 50 and 80%, depending on the measure of food insecurity. We also find that maternal depression increases the likelihood of reliance on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; Medicaid; and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, suggesting that these programs play a buffering role.

Beyond income: What else predicts very low food security among children?

We examine characteristics and correlates of households in the United States that are most likely to have children at risk of inadequate nutrition – those that report very low food security (VLFS) among their children. Using 11 years of the Current Population Survey, plus data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and American Time Use Survey, we describe these households in great detail with the goal of trying to understand how these households differ from households without such severe food insecurity. While household income certainly plays an important role in determining VLFS among children, we find that even after flexibly controlling for income-to-poverty rates some household characteristics and patterns of program participation have important additional explanatory power. Finally, our examination of the NHANES and ATUS data suggests an important role for both mental and physical health in determining the food security status of children.

Family structure and child food insecurity

This study examined whether food insecurity was different for children in cohabiting or repartnered families compared to those in single mother or married (biological) parent families. We compared probabilities of child food insecurity across different family structures in four national datasets the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Birth Cohort ECLS-B); the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study (FFWCS); the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K); and, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics-Child Development Supplement (PSID-CDS). The likelihood of child food insecurity in cohabiting or repartnered families were generally higher than in married biological parent families and often statistically indistinguishable from single mother families.  Children whose biological parents are cohabiting or whose biological mothers have repartnered have comparable risk for food insecurity to those in single mother households. However, family structure is not related to child food insecurity above and beyond the influence of other factors such as household income, family size, and maternal race, ethnicity, education, and age.


Risk and Protective Factors Associated with Prevalence of VLFS in Children among Children of Foreign-Born Mothers

This research examined VLFS in children among households with foreign-born (FB) mothers compared to US-born mothers through three research questions: Is mother’s foreign-born status (FBS) associated with VLFS in children, and can association be explained by mothers’ socio-demographic characteristics? Are FB mothers more or less likely to receive nutrition or non-nutrition assistance benefits, or work for pay than US-born mothers? Do mothers’ FBS, or protective/risk factors associated with FBS, modify associations of negative economic shocks and hardships with VLFS in children? Data are on approximately 44,000 mother-child (ages<48 Mos.) dyads collected from household surveys administered under a "sentinel surveillance" system over 1998-2012 at teaching hospitals and clinics in seven US cities. Bivariate and multivariate logistic regression models tested study hypotheses. Mothers' FBS is strongly positively associated with VLFS in children after controlling for available risk and protective factors. FB mothers are less likely to receive SNAP and non-nutrition assistance (TANF, LIHEAP or housing subsidies), but more likely to receive WIC and to be employed than US-born mothers. FB mothers are no more likely to report negative reasons for not receiving SNAP or TANF, or losing jobs or decreasing work hours than US-born, and reported "immigration concerns" rarely. No need/chose not to participate are most frequently reported reasons for not receiving SNAP and TANF; pregnancy/maternity leave and "market conditions" for lost jobs and decreased work hours. Economic shocks and hardships are positively associated with VLFS in children, but Mothers' FBS does not interact with shocks and hardships to modify those associations