Food Insecurities on Development in Early Childhood

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Updated: Mar 05, 2020
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Food and nutrition is a known fact of being a key player in the development of children and adolescents. Starting at a young age, lack of nutrients hinders many parts of a child’s growth. This can result in neuro-cognitive, emotional, academic, etc. delays as well as be a precursor to developing other disorders and health conditions. Early childhood and food security is a cornerstone for living a healthy and functional adolescent and adult life. When that is compromised, a generational cycle can occur surrounding food insecurities and inadequate physical development. The community plays a role as food deserts pose large obstacles to reaching healthy and affordable food options as well as creating barriers to receiving care and other resources. I chose this as my topic because I did not realize the deeper implications that food insecurities have on development until starting my practicum with lower income families. By learning more about gaps in need, you can better your own social work practice and become more efficient in helping those in the community.


While the issue of food insecurity and neglect are attempting to be addressed, the unfortunate reality is that many children still suffer the consequences of physical, mental, social, and emotional delays. Alarmingly, a study conducted around food neglect and behavioral problems states, “The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 15 million children in the United States reside in households facing challenges related to food security.” (Vaughn, Salas-Wright, Naeger, Huang, Piquero, 2016) Food neglect can also refer to other abusive situations where a child is being denied food due many different possibilities. To define the terms for clarification, an article exploring infant maltreatment and food neglect elucidates it perfectly. It states, “Food insecurity is defined as lacking physical and economic access to sufficient quantities of affordable and nutritious food and we define food neglect as a parent’s failure to provide adequate food. While food neglect and food insecurity are likely to be related, they are not equivalent. Food neglect could be more severe than food insecurity if, for example, caregivers both lack access to food and are not adequately providing food that they can access. Or food neglect could be less severe than food insecurity if food is adequate and accessible, but caregivers’ problems interfere with them providing their children food.” (Helton, Cross, Vaughn, Gochez-Kerr, 2018) This paper aims to dive into the causes and outcomes of food deprivation in early childhood.

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In understanding the major health problems a child may face by not having adequate food supply, it’s important to look at the context. In a more defined light, “Inadequate childhood nutrition can be the result of material deprivation that is part and parcel of family-of-origin poverty, the result of parental neglect whereby the basic parent is unwilling or unable to provide basic life necessities for the child, or a combination of both. A large literature has shown that parenting deficits contribute to impulse-control deficits in children for a variety of reasons.” (Vaughn et al., 2016) Basically, a parent may lack resources of accessing food off the bat, may try to stretch the food thin in order to make it last as long as possible, or may even feel they need it more in a food hierarchy. In all, the possibilities are countless and every situation can be different. However, the results of being food insecure on developmental stages in early childhood are all similar and many parents may not even know this.

Lack of overall resources and education can make reaching a lot of families difficult. To try and combat this, many schools have implemented programs such as The National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and as many as thirty million children in one hundred thousand schools utilize it daily. (Karnaze, 2018) However, the program has come under scrutiny for exposing usually lower-income children in the lunchroom which can make it essentially ineffective. A study whose goal is to highlight the problems within the NSLP states about stigmatization, “Focuses on two of these practices: (1) the physical separation of paying and nonpaying students in the cafeteria, often resulting in de facto racial segregation, and (2) the practice of “”shaming”” students who are unable to pay for their meals.” (Karnaze, 2018) Overall, there are clearly problems within trying to reach children in schools which creates another barrier to providing children with the proper nutrients needed to thrive and other social justice issues can come into play.

After getting a glimpse at some of the context, it creates a better environment to fully understand the problem. Regardless of the scenario, developmental issues can last well into adulthood. As mentioned before, there are numerous ways a child can be affected by food insecurity. All aspects of a person are covered: physical growth, mental, emotional, social, and behavioral setbacks can occur. In infants, there is a strong correlation to delayed speech and cognition impairment. Choline, folic acid, and zinc are just a couple of nutrients that are known to have an effect on early brain functioning. (Helton et al., 2018) Interestingly enough, many other disorders have also been linked to food insecurities. The study on these correlations states,

“Childhood behavioral problems—often a precursor for later antisocial behavior and violence—have been linked with nutritional inadequacies… More specifically, poor nutrition early in life has been linked to deficits in executive functioning such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attentional problems in childhood and adolescence that are more likely to occur among males. Infant iron deficiency was predictive of poor results during early adulthood with respect to long-term planning and behavioral inhibition. Studies of inadequate nutrition and antisocial behavior have found associations with aggressive and/or externalizing behaviors.” (Vaughn et al., 2016)

Not only are children finding school, social, and family life difficult, but they are being seen as more violent and aggressive in general. This is concerning as these behaviors can influence the cycle of food insecurity by continuing it into the next generation. Having violent emotions and actions can hinder schooling and even holding a job later on. Therefore, possibly creating the same type of environment that that child grew up in.

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Food Insecurities on Development in Early Childhood. (2020, Mar 05). Retrieved from