Childhood Food Insecurity: Especially Vulnerable Populations

If you’ve read our recent posts, you now know that a number of factors besides household income influence childhood food insecurity, including caretakers’ mental and physical health, parents’ marital status, and childcare arrangements. However, even when these factors are taken into account, children of immigrant parents and children of incarcerated parents remain especially at risk for childhood food insecurity, according to the Future of Children‘s Fall 2014 research report.

For example, writes John Cook, after controlling for other risk factors, “children of foreign-born mothers were three times as likely to experience very low food security as were children of U.S.-born mothers.” And a study by Kelly Balistreri found that 40 percent of children experiencing very low food security are children of immigrants, even though they constitute less than 25 percent of all children in the US.

When children have one or more parents incarcerated, this factor also decreases food security, however the reasons for the effect of incarceration are unclear. The research report highlights several theoretical explanations, but none have been thoroughly investigated. For example, incarcerating a parent might theoretically improve a household’s food security because of decreased demands on resources or by removing a negative influence in the household. On the other hand, incarceration might reduce food security because that parent’s financial, child care, and other contributions are removed. Given these conflicting theories, you might think that other factors correlated with incarceration, such as drug use or mental illness (which I discussed in a previous blog), are causing the effects we see. However, Wallace and Cox found that children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to be food insecure even after controlling for correlated factors.

We need to better understand exactly how these populations are affected, but it’s clear from the research report that children of immigrant or incarcerated parents may need additional support to obtain stable nutrition. Given that these are often two difficult-to-reach populations, policy makers should consider how to best serve these children within existing programs or with new possibilities. For more information about these vulnerable populations, see the Future of Children‘s Fall 2014 research report. For more about children of immigrants in the U.S., see Volume 21 on Immigrant Children.