The Effect of Food Insecurity on Families

A new fact sheet from the Urban Institute highlights an urgent problem for families across the United States: food insecurity. In many families, ensuring that infants and toddlers can eat means parents are skipping meals or even going without an entire day’s worth of food when there is not enough for everyone to eat.

Food insecurity can be defined as limited or uncertain access to nutritious food because of a lack of resources. Many families do not have the financial resources they need to meet the competing demands we all face – including payments for food, housing, medical care and other household necessities – which increases their risk for food insecurity. Families may experience food insecurity for a day, a week, a few months or more as their resources come and go.

Food insecurity is a serious problem among parents of our nation’s youngest children. According to the Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey, about half (50.9%) of low-income parents of infants and toddlers reported experiencing food insecurity in the 12 months before the survey, and more than half (54.2%) of these parents reported skipping meals or going without food for an entire day. This puts these families at risk.

Consistent access to nutritious food is essential during the first 1,000 days. Without enough nutrient-dense foods, children may not receive all the nutrients they need. As a result, food insecurity can inhibit healthy growth and cognitive development among infants and toddlers. Children experiencing food insecurity are also more likely to require frequent hospitalizations, experience developmental delays and be in poor health.

When parents reduce their own food intake to feed their young children, it impacts the whole family. According to the Urban Institute, caregivers who experience food insecurity, themselves, may be more prone to depression and have a lack of energy to nurture and engage with their children. Additionally, many caregivers experience distress when they and their children aren’t receiving the nutrition they need. Overall, food insecurity has devastating consequences for the families who experience it.

The Urban Institute offers four policy recommendations to support parents of infants and toddlers who are experiencing food insecurity:

  1. Expand food insecurity screenings during health care visits and check-ups as part of routine clinical procedures.
  2. Support federal nutrition programs such as SNAP and WIC that provide food assistance to low-income families.
  3. Increase SNAP and WIC uptake and purchasing power so that more families can receive the nutrition assistance they need.
  4. Pair healthy foods with family-friendly distribution strategies in the charitable feeding system so that healthy foods are made available in locations where families regularly visit, such as child care settings.

Making it easier for families to access to federal nutrition programs, such as SNAP and WIC, is one way to ensure parents and their children get the nutrition they need for a healthy first 1,000 days and beyond.