Food availability and access to healthy meals impacts cognitive and emotional development in children and have lasting impacts. At a young age, children learn important skills such as self-regulation and autonomy, which are crucial for their emotional development. Children who are food-insecure are more likely to internalize problems and experience self-image issues. The early sense of autonomy and self-image, in turn, affect motor development, and it’s been shown that children who are more secure experience improved motor development. Food availability also affects the time and the quality of time children spend in school - whether that time is spent focused on the present or worrying about their next meal. Food insecurity is often associated with an increased likelihood of repeating a grade and lower testing scores.
Children experiencing food insecurity can be affected by a variety of cognitive impairments. Studies have shown that children facing food insecurity spend less time in school, more time repeating grades, and the age of school enrollment (Glewwe et al., 2001).
A lack of access to nutritional foods can also delay a child’s motor development through 2 years of age (DiGirolamo et al., 2020).
Not only is the availability of food important, but where it’s sourced from can impact the cognitive development of children as well. Foods containing large traces of contaminants are linked to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (Marques et al., 2013).
DiGirolamo, A. M., Ochaeta, L., & Flores, R. M. M. (2020). Early childhood nutrition and cognitive functioning in childhood and adolescence. Food and Nutrition Bulletin, 41(1_suppl), S31-S40.
Glewwe, P., Jacoby, H. G., & King, E. M. (2001). Early childhood nutrition and academic achievement: a longitudinal analysis. Journal of Public Economics, 81(3), 345-368.
Marques, A. H., Oconnor, T. G., Roth, C., Susser, E., & Bjørke-Monsen, A. (2013). The influence of maternal prenatal and early childhood nutrition and maternal prenatal stress on offspring immune system development and neurodevelopmental disorders. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7.
Food insecurity is associated with deficits in emotional development such as the increased risk of internalizing and externalizing problems (Fiese et al., 2011).
Food insecurity is a major stressor that can increase anxiety and stress levels among children’s caregivers. They may not be able to have optimal interactions with young children, affecting the quality of attachment (Perez & Pinheiro, 2012).
Children are aware of food insecurity and interviews revealed that their experiences of food insecurity are distinct from parent experiences and from parent reports of children's experiences. Children, over time, shoulder the emotional burden of food insecurity in their own way (Maryah et al., 2011)
Fiese, B. H., Gundersen, C., Koester, B., & Washington, L. (2011). Household Food Insecurity: Serious Concerns for Child Development and commentaries. Social Policy Report, 25(3), 1-27.
Maryah Stella Fram, Edward A. Frongillo, Sonya J. Jones, Roger C. Williams, Michael P. Burke, Kendra P. DeLoach, Christine E. Blake, Children Are Aware of Food Insecurity and Take Responsibility for Managing Food Resources, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 141, Issue 6, June 2011, Pages 1114–1119.
Perez-Escamilla, R. & Pinheiro de Toledo Vianna, R. (2012). Food insecurity and the behavioral and intellectual development of children: A review of the evidence. Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for children at Risk, 3(1).