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.



Food insecurity during childhood: Understanding persistence and change using linked Current Population Survey data

Our paper examines the prevalence and determinants of children’s transitions into and out of food insecurity since 2001. We use longitudinally linked data from the Food Security Supplements to the Current Population Surveys to estimate one-year transition probabilities of entry and exit from food insecurity. Our results indicate that child hunger is typically short-lived, but children experiencing very low food security frequently experience multiple consecutive years of food insecurity. We demonstrate large demographic and socioeconomic differences in rates of entry into very low food security and persistence in children's food insecurity. Income and employment shocks are important predictors of child hunger transitions. Finally, we find that the Great Recession increased the likelihood that children entered into and persisted in food insecurity among children.

The influence of parental aspirations, attitudes, and engagement on children's very low food security

Survey of Income and Program Participation data are used to investigate the relationship between parenting and children’s very low food security. Parenting is characterized along five domains (emotional outlook, support, education desires, activities with the child excluding meals, and television viewing rules). Food security definitions are obtained from questions in a special SIPP module that are based on the USDA’s core food security module. Graphical evidence indicates that parenting patterns differ distinctly for households experiencing various levels of food insecurity. Descriptive regression evidence suggests that some of the parenting attributes are significantly associated with children’s food insecurity, even controlling for a wide variety of background characteristics. Finally, an event-study framework is used to identify causal effects of parenting on food security outcomes. The overall findings are twofold. First, mothers in food-insecure households have a worse outlook on their parental role and the parent-child relationship. However, the evidence indicates that this is likely either reverse-caused (e.g., maternal depression leads to low family resources) or is a response to the stress of being in a low-resource environment. Second, there is some evidence against rejecting the hypothesis that more supportive (nurturing) parental behavior is protective for children in households experiencing a job layoff of an adult member. This is consistent with supportive parenting playing a causal role in children’s very low food security.

Use of alternative financial services and childhood food insecurity

Low- and moderate-income (LMI) households with children often face considerable difficulties in ensuring enough financial resources for an adequate diet. This project investigates the use of financial services and other financial decisions parents make that may affect the risk of very low food security and food insecurity of children. With households in both the December 2008 Current Population Survey (CPS) Food Security Supplement and the January 2009 CPS Unbanked and Underbanked Supplement, the project studies the relationship between bank account ownership, use of alternative financial service (AFS) providers, the organization of household finances, and the food security of children. Both children in unbanked households and those in households that use AFS products are more likely to experience very low food security and food insecurity than other households. Children in previously banked households face extremely high risk of food insecurity. Children in households that use AFS products that provide credit are more likely to experience very low food security than households using AFS product for basic financial transaction services. Large associations exist between the use of AFS products providing credit and child food insecurity but only pawn borrowing appears to have a causal effect. Couples that share at least some finances and jointly participate in financial decisions reduce the risk of child food insecurity. Evidence suggests that improved financial literacy and management skills could improve outcomes. Policies to eliminate childhood hunger should include a multifaceted approach that includes financial education, appropriate bank accounts, and access to low-cost credit.

The effect of household financial, time, and environmental constraints on very low food security among children

Food insecurity is detrimental to children’s well-being. A better understanding of factors contributing to low and very low food security among children in the United States can guide the design of food assistance programs. We analyze the effects of household characteristics and local food environment attributes, including food prices and availability of food stores and eating places, on children’s food insecurity. We also investigate the effects of these characteristics and attributes on food preparation time. Using Becker’s household production approach, we propose an economic model that formalizes the use of constrained financial and time resources in the household. The model motivates empirical specifications of food insecurity and food preparation time equations, which are estimated jointly by maximum likelihood. We assemble a large dataset of households with children by pooling across years and matching the Food Security Supplement of the Current Population Survey, 2002–2010, and the American Time Use Survey, 2003–2011. These data are supplemented with location-specific variables from several large national sources. The estimates suggest intuitively plausible effects of demographic and socioeconomic characteristics on food insecurity and food preparation time. They also indicate that residing in a location with higher fast food prices and with fewer convenience stores and specialty food stores tends to exacerbate food insecurity. Public policies supporting parents’ financial, transportation, and childcare needs, enhancing parents’ resource management skills, supporting the food needs of school-age children, and encouraging businesses to open specialty food stores in poorer neighborhoods can help alleviate very low food security among children.


Does economic decline contribute to a decline in children's food security?

This report presents evidence that spikes in regional and household characteristics played a significant role in the observed 2008 increase in child with very low food security and low food security. Perhaps not surprisingly, unemployment of the household head is found to substantially increase the probability of very low food security and low food insecurity among children. Further, simulations of changes in regional economic conditions indicate rising unemployment rates during the Great Recession explain a significant portion of observed increases in child food insecurity. The findings suggest that there is a need to examine unemployment insurance and job creation policies during severe labor market shocks in order to better protect the food security of families with children. The study also finds that the factors which place children at risk of very low food security are in some cases different than those that place children at risk of low food security.

Families with hungry children and the transition from preschool to kindergarten

This paper exploits a source of variation in the eligibility for federal nutrition programs to identify the program effects on food insecurity. Children are eligible for the WIC program until the day before they turn 61 months old. The result is an age discontinuity in program participation at the 61-month cutoff. Using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Birth-cohort dataset, we find strong evidence of a sizeable increase in household food insecurity at the 61-month cutoff. Our findings are robust to different model specifications, datasets, and various bandwidth choices using various non-parametric estimations.

Is there more to food inescurity among children than poverty? The importance of measurement

This paper examines the association between poverty and food insecurity among children using the official measure of poverty and the newsupplemental poverty measure of the Census Bureau based on a more inclusive definition of family resources and needs. Our objective is to study whether the association between food insecurity and poverty improves with a more comprehensive measure of income and needs. We find a strong and statistically significant association between income-to-needs ratio based on the official poverty metric and food insecurity among children—particularly very low food security among children. A more inclusive measure of income-to-needs-ratio, based on the supplemental poverty measurestrengthens the association. These findings remain robust in models using longitudinal data with person fixed effects.

The effects of safety net programs on food insecurity

Does the safety net reduce food insecurity in families? In this paper we investigate how the structure of benefits for five major safety net programs – TANF, SSI, EITC, SNAP, and Medicaid – affects low food security in families and very low food security among children. We build a calculator for the years 2001-2009 to impute eligibility and benefits for these programs in each state, taking into account cross-program eligibility rules. To identify a causal effect of the safety net, we instrument for imputed eligibility and benefits using simulated eligibility and benefits for a nationally representative sample. Focusing on non-immigrant, single-parent families with incomes below 300 percent of the poverty line, the results suggest that the median annual cash and food package of roughly $3400 reduces low food security by 5.1 percentage points on a base incidence of 33 percent, a 16 percent reduction. The same package reduces the more extreme outcome of childhood very low food security by an imprecisely estimated 36 percent. Controlling for receipt of other program benefits, the SNAP food assistance program improves food security: each $1000 in annual SNAP eligibility reduces low food security by 1.8 percentage points. We are unable to reject equivalent impacts of cash and food assistance.

Food insecurity across the first five years: Triggers of onset and exit

Very low food security among young children is associated with developmental deficiencies. However, little is known about the factors that predict entry into or exit from very low food security during early childhood. This study seeks to, 1) Understand the triggers that explain movements into or out of very low food security among children from birth to age five; and, 2) Examine the first aim using different definitions of food insecurity. The analysis relies on the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), a longitudinal, nationally representative dataset of approximately 10,700 children, to estimate linear probability models. Results suggest that residential moves and declines in maternal or child health are associated with transitioning into food insecurity, whereas increases in the number of adults in the household are associated with exits from food insecurity. Changes in income and maternal depression are associated with both entrances and exits. These findings are robust to different definitions of food insecurity and model specifications. Findings can help nutrition assistance programs target parents and their children for assistance and information on coping strategies when they are most at risk of experiencing food insecurity.

The impact of incarceration on food insecurity among households with children

This study seeks to determine the role that parental incarceration plays on the probability of food insecurity among families with children and very low food security of children using micro-level data from the Fragile Families and Child Well Being Study (FFCWS). The data set contains the 18-question food security module which allows us to explore the link between incarceration and food insecurity and very low food security among children, families, and adults. The incidence of very low food security in our data is somewhat higher than the national average, but the incidence of other levels of food security is similar to national aggregates.