New Report Documents Child Food Insecurity

Feeding America has issued a report on food insecurity among children. It’s the first-ever state-by-state breakout of data the Census Bureau collects for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The report consists entirely of an explanation of the methodology and two tables. One table gives the average numbers and percentages of food insecure children under 18 for 2004-6 and 2005-7. The other provides the same data for food insecure children under 5 for the 2005-7 period.

The report doesn’t define “food insecure children.” So I took a look at the questions about children in the Census Bureau’s survey instrument. Putting them all together, we seem to be looking at children whose families can’t afford to consistently feed them balanced, nutritious meals–probably including some who don’t get enough to eat at all.

These are children that many studies have shown to be at high risk of a host of lifelong problems–poor physical and/or mental health, developmental delays, difficulties in learning and persistent poverty due to all or any of these. So it’s important to know how many there are, where they are and what we need to do to make them “food secure.”

I’ve been sitting here looking at the numbers in Feeding America’s report and trying to figure out what they tell us. Some things are clear enough.

There are far too many food insecure children in the U.S. In 2005-7, more than 73.8 million children under 18, including 20.5 million under 5 were food insecure. The percentages are nearly the same–17% of all children under 18 and 17.3% of children under 5.

We seem not to be making much progress on this problem. For children under 18, the nationwide percentage in 2005-7 was just 0.5% lower than in 2004-6. And that’s with an error rate of plus or minus 0.2%.

Some states have much higher percentages of food insecure children than others. For children under 18, Texas comes in highest at 22.1%, followed by Mississippi at 21.5% and the District of Columbia at 21.4%. On the low end are North Dakota at 10.9%, Virginia at 11% and New Hampshire at 12%. For children under 5, Louisiana comes in highest at 24.2%. In Massachusetts, the percentage is less than a third of that–6.7%.

States with high percentages of food insecure children are all other the country. It’s conventional to associate hunger with the South. But, of the 15 states with the highest percentages of food insecure children under 18, only eight are southern. Two are on the Pacific Coast, two in the southwest, two in the midwest and one in the northeast.

State poverty rates do not account for the percentages of food insecure children. True, most of the states that had the highest poverty rates in 205-7 were also among those with the highest percentages of food insecure children. But not all of them.

Alabama, with the 8th highest poverty rate, had the 9th lowest percentage of food insecure children under 18 and the 8th lowest percentage of food insecure children under 5. Conversely, Vermont, with the 3rd lowest poverty rate, had a higher percentage of food insecure children under 18 than 20 other states and a higher percentage of food insecure children under 5 than 21 others.

So where do we go from here? We already knew that child food insecurity is a major widespread problem and that we need to do more about it. Feeding America’s report is a useful confirmation of this. But what more can we learn?

If you have any insights, I hope you’ll weigh in because I’ve crunched the numbers this way and that and still don’t know what to make of them.

One Response to New Report Documents Child Food Insecurity

  1. […] The co-author of the new study suggests that food stamp recipients could be required to take a course on nutrition. My heart sinks at the thought. Are we sure that poor people, unlike the rest of us, are so ignorant about what’s good for them and their families that they all need a course? Do we really want to erect a further barrier to participation–and risk even higher rates of child food insecurity? […]

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