In medicine, as in so many other fields, often a “buzz phrase” becomes popular. It’s often something that describes a problem that’s been there all along. Once it has a name, sometimes it starts going viral. People start writing articles on it, and suddenly it’s a problem that people pay attention to. With any luck, a few of those articles might even propose some solutions.
Such is the case with one that’s been in the pediatric news lately: food insecurity. What this term basically translates to is people, especially parents, having trouble buying enough food to sustain their families.
Who’s Affected, and Why
It’s estimated that about 1 in 6 families are affected by food insecurity. And quite frankly, a lot of us who provide services to families are probably missing quite a few of them. I admit to having some skepticism initially. I look at grapes on sale at the local supermarket and see a price of $1.99 for a huge bunch that will take me 12 or 13 sittings to get through. And I compare it to the 7-dollar burger that I can down in about 4 minutes. I then look at my part-time practice, which largely serves low-income families, and see about 2/3 of kids—babies and toddlers, even—in the “overweight” or “obese” range. Clearly they’re being fed; what’s going on?
The issue appears to be getting the right kind of food. Obviously, kids can’t live on grapes alone (especially infants and toddlers, who can only be given cut-up seedless grapes with caution). Variety is important, and yet, especially during early childhood, there is the added issue of that child who will only eat one or two foods. Many parents can’t afford to throw away food and may lean on a lot of processed choices guided by kid preference, which might not be the most nutritious choices.
Let’s do a deeper dive into why parents may not be able to obtain enough food. Certainly cost is one issue—though the term food insecurity was coined before the COVID crisis, latest developments have certainly meant less disposable income for many as well as rising food prices. Another big contributor to the problem is the lack of availability of nutritious foods: Residents of low-income neighborhoods often don’t have the same access to markets as those of wealthier neighborhoods, meaning that often the only choices are from fast-food places and convenience stores or smaller, more expensive markets. People working to make ends meet may have less shopping choices during their off hours or may simply be too exhausted to shop and cook.
Finally, having trouble making ends meet can be a stress for everyone, including children. Binge eating of non-nutritious foods, especially if they’re only intermittently available, is unfortunately one coping mechanism that is used by all of us, including kids.
The Effects of the Wrong Kind of Food
As I’ve alluded to, food insecurity is pretty closely linked to obesity in kids. This sets them up for all sorts of problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, bone and joint problems, and depression. And increasingly, these problems are affecting children a ways off from adulthood. Add that to deficiencies of nutrients we know a lot about (such as iron) and ones we’re just beginning to learn about (such as antioxidants, like the ones in brightly colored fruits) and we realize how important it is that we solve this problem.
What to Do to Fight Food Insecurity
Lots of times, it’s a lot easier to talk about a problem than to solve it. No one answer will fit all situations, and more research will be needed to determine what will work to end food insecurity for the greatest number of people. That said, let’s brainstorm a few things that parents can do:
- Remember that breastfeeding your infant provides a ready source of essentially complete nutrition; Moms are encouraged to do so for the first year.
- Take advantage of the programs that are out there for struggling families; the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP—formerly known as “food stamps”), school lunches and after-school supplemental programs are some examples.
- Strategize with friends and neighbors: Can you travel together to a market with better choices? Can you buy in bulk and split your purchases? Can you cook and freeze? And remember that involving your kids in shopping and food preparation is a great strategy to get them interested in the variety that’s out there.
- By all means, talk to your child’s pediatric provider! Nutrition is one of the first topics that’s discussed at a well visit, so you’re going to be discussing food anyway, and providers often know of resources specific to your area.
Food insecurity is, unfortunately, a thing. I hope to discuss some additional strategies in a future article. Meanwhile, if this is you, realize that you do have company, that increased attention is being paid to the problem, and that solutions are out there for many—maybe one day for all.