Minding Child Hunger
At the Maryland Food Bank, we know that child hunger has a significant impact, but we are learning more and more about just how far-ranging and long-lasting that impact can be. When a child shows traditional signs of food insecurity — struggling to focus, lacking the energy to participate in recess or sports, or experiencing physical maladies — it’s easier to recognize and address. The psychological effects, however, tend to be more difficult to identify and may manifest in different ways at different times in life.
“My sister would sometimes ask me for a fruit snack or a banana and I would say ‘no we’re running low, we could use those for tomorrow for lunch.’”
This sentiment doesn’t come from someone feeling tired due to a lack of food, or a person trying to stretch leftovers for a day or two at the end of the month. This is a young girl taking on the adult responsibility of managing her household’s food supply.
This is hunger at its most insidious
This is the psychological imprint of hunger shared across generations in just 31 words. Words spoken by someone who should be more concerned with how to make fun last longer, not how to make food last longer.
This is the invisible side of hunger — where psychological effects can have even more impact than physical ones. One extra fruit snack or one extra banana may not seem like a big deal, but it may be the difference between hunger affecting a child for just a moment in time, rather than a lifetime.
Luckily, many of the more than 205,000 food-insecure children in Maryland do not have to shoulder adult concerns like this or suffer these consequences. Why not?
Because of supporters like you who have chosen to provide them access to nutritious foods through MFB Kids programs. By supporting the Maryland Food Bank — and efforts like the School Pantry Program — you are impacting the lives of Marylanders not just on the day they receive food, but the weeks, months, years, and even decades that follow. You help disrupt the potential for a generational cycle of food insecurity among Maryland families.
Feeding Kids Fuels Change
“When children don’t have access to healthy foods, some of the things we notice are behavioral issues like poor impulse control and poor peer relations,” said Chezonne Johnson, (a social worker at Gardenville Elementary School in northeast Baltimore, home to one of the 209 MFB school pantries across the state.“
I’ve seen evidence of how eating affects our kids. Our pantry allows families access to food; students feel good and not embarrassed,” Johnson shared.
Even with the success of MFB’s existing School Pantry Program, there is more work to be done, for more kids and more families in more communities.
Children Assume the Role of Food Provider
Kids are resilient and resourceful. These qualities serve them well as they navigate the challenges of childhood, but they really shouldn’t have to apply them to solving their family’s food security issues.
“There’s this assumption that it’s just adults managing these serious issues,” Dr. Kate Cairns, assistant professor of child psychology, Rutgers University. “But we learn different things about household food insecurity when we talk to kids.”
At Gardenville Elementary, Mrs. Johnson has experienced this personally. “I’ve had instances of students who have asked me ‘we don’t have food in the house; can you call my mom, because I know you have a pantry, and let her know?’”
The elementary school girl who denied her sister a snack is but one example of a child demonstrating resourcefulness to combat hunger. Other studies report kids doing everything from recycling bottles to add to the family coffers to drinking extra water to feel full. One girl even claimed she was “allergic” to food.
A teenage boy reflected on how he and other kids would try to help their families when food was running low: “…we’ll find a way to get money … We might all get together and cut the grass or something. We’ll find some way…people will be putting money up on fights and stuff, too … and they might do dog fights every now and again to get money.”
Internalizing the Issue
Stress is a word that has become so commonplace that its impact has been blunted. However, an emerging body of research reveals that stress can have much longer-lasting and significant effects than previously thought. In fact, one particular type — toxic stress — can actually alter brain architecture and chemistry in children.
A 2012 study by Drexel University’s School of Public Health3 suggests that “experiences with toxic stress may be the key to what fuels child food insecurity across generations.” It also introduces the concept that food insecurity early in life is not a singular event in time, but rather a series of experiences that have a ripple effect into adulthood.
In some cases where food insecurity is continually high, severe hunger has been associated with significant mental health issues.4 In analyzing data from 15- and 16-year-olds classified as “food insufficient,” the Drexel researchers found a strong association between food insufficiency and depressive disorder as well as suicidal symptoms in U.S. adolescents. In fact, 38.8% reported at least one suicidal symptom.
At the Maryland Food Bank, we know that hunger has a significant impact on children, but we are learning more and more about just how pervasive those effects can be. When a child shows traditional signs of food insecurity — struggling to focus, lacking the energy to participate in recess or sports, or experiencing physical maladies — it’s easier to recognize and address. The psychological effects however, tend to be more difficult to identify, and may manifest in different ways at different times in life.
We can help kids just be kids, by getting more food to more kids in need. We know that feeding kids improves their well-being. It fuels their ability to concentrate and achieve their potential in school. It can reduce physical health issues. But increasingly, we’re learning how powerful of a tool food is against mental health issues.
Imagine the potential of Maryland’s children if they were all food secure: Instead of attempting to help stretch their food supply, maybe that elementary school girl would help her sister with homework, which leads to her making the honor role, and becoming the next Nobel Prize winner. If the families of those high-schoolers had ample food, maybe the boys would become entrepreneurs and launch the next innovative start-up company.