The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is now recommending that pediatricians screen all children for food insecurity (lack of access to healthy food). In a new policy statement identifying the short and long-term health problems of food insecurity, the AAP also recommends that pediatricians become familiar with and refer families to needed community resources, and advocate for federal and local policies that support access to adequate, nutritious food.
“The health effects of hunger on children are pervasive and long-lasting, which is why our new policy urges pediatricians to take action in and outside of the clinic to conquer food insecurity and promote child health,” said Sarah Jane Schwarzenberg, MD, FAAP, a lead author of the policy statement and director of pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
Lack of adequate healthy food can impair a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well in school and is linked to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems from preschool through adolescence, according to the AAP policy statement.
These children also become sick more often, recover more slowly from illness, have poorer overall health and are hospitalized more frequently. They are more likely to be iron deficient, and preadolescent boys dealing with hunger issues have lower bone density. Early childhood malnutrition also is tied to conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.
“As is the case with many childhood health conditions, being malnourished or not getting enough healthy food early in life has effects that can last well into adulthood,” Schwarzenberg said.
Households with children have significantly higher rates of food insecurity than those without, and low-income working families and families headed by a single parent are especially at risk. Women who experience food insecurity during pregnancy are at increased risk for poorer birth outcomes, including low birth weight babies and toxic stress, which can have lifelong effects on the health and well-being of a child.
“The demographic of food-insecure Americans extends beyond the areas of concentrated urban poverty and into suburbs and rural America, areas often mistakenly thought to be immune to this problem,” the authors write. “Like poverty, food insecurity is a dynamic, intensely complex issue,” they write, and levels remain near historic highs despite the current economic recovery.
More than 30 percent of families who reported food insecurity said they had to choose between paying for food or paying for medicine or medical care. For many families, seemingly small changes to income, expenses, or access to federal or state assistance programs can instantly reduce the ability to buy enough nutritious food, according to the AAP policy statement.
“We are in the midst of a nutritional crisis in our country, and when you’re in a crisis, you can’t keep doing what you’ve always done,” said AAP President Sandra Hassink, M.D., FAAP.
“That’s why pediatricians are taking a comprehensive approach, connecting families to resources and advocating to keep federal nutrition programs like WIC and SNAP strong. It will take all of us — pediatricians, parents, government leaders, educators — partnering together, to do our best to ensure that no child goes hungry in this country.”
The new policy statement, “Promoting Food Security for all Children,” is published in the journal Pediatrics.
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics