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Poverty’s Effect On Child Nutrition

Poverty and food insecurity are just a couple of social determinants of health (SDOH) – parts of our environment that impact every part of our health and wellbeing. We often talk about how SDOH impact adults, but how does it affect children?

One in seven children lives in poverty today. Lack of food has a direct impact on their development and well-being in both the short- and long term. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “After multiple risk factors are considered, children who live in households that are food insecure, even at the lowest levels, are likely to be sick more often, recover from illness more slowly, and be hospitalized more frequently. Lack of adequate healthy food can impair a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well in school and is linked to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems from preschool through adolescence.” (AAP policy statement, Promoting Food Security for All Children)

Growing up in poverty is associated with toxic stress. Toxic stress is defined as chronic stress which elevates the stress hormone levels and after a prolonged period of time can lead to deterioration of the brain and body. This sets up a scenario of learning and behavior impairments as well as physical and mental illness later in life.

Neighborhoods in poverty-stricken areas usually have fewer resources to promote childhood health. For example, there are not always full-service grocery stores nearby. Parks and playgrounds to promote physical activity are usually non-existent. Also, the area could have negative environmental impacts such as contaminated water or poor air quality.

What is being done to address this problem?

Globally, the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition was formed. The World Health Organization states that “the purpose of the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition – from 2016 to 2025 – is to inject new energy into efforts to improve people’s nutrition worldwide. We should transform our food systems (the way food is produced, processed, and distributed) to ensure that all people have access to nutritious food and healthy diets. We should ensure that social protection systems reduce inequalities and give everyone around the world access to healthier diets. We should strengthen our health systems so that everybody has access to essential nutrition services. And we should ensure that women are educated and that schools offer nutritious food to all children.”(Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of Nutrition for Health and Development, WHO and Anna Lartey, Director of Nutrition Division, FAO)

On a national level we have organizations such as:

  • Feeding America – working with food banks across the country

  • Share Our Strength – holds culinary events along with social media to raise funds to address hunger

  • Why Hunger – supports community-based organizations that empower individuals through job training, education, etc.

  • Community Action agencies – providing housing, food, education and home improvement support for low-income families

What can you do to help?

To make an immediate impact, you can donate and/or volunteer at your local food pantry. During the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic, many food pantries have been struggling to keep up with demand.

Will you be planting a garden this year? Any food surplus you have can be donated. A little fresh produce goes a long way.

Lastly, learn more about the issue. Listen to stories around your community; find ways to encourage people to take advantage of food assistance programs.

Poverty, food insecurity and poor nutrition have a serious negative impact on the well-being of children. Thanks to the dedication of organizations nationwide, we have the solutions to lessen the problem and improve children’s health.


Written by Renee Weichinger.

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