Food insecurity has greater impact on disadvantaged children

Behavioral problems and poor cognitive outcomes may be linked to food insecurity in children, according to a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior

Philadelphia, June 26, 2018

In 2016, 12.9 million children lived in food-insecure households. These children represent a vulnerable population since their developing brains can suffer long-term negative consequences from undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. A new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that among these vulnerable children, food insecurity had a greater impact on behavior problems in young children of single mothers living in urban neighborhoods.

“Most studies on the consequences of food insecurity have focused on the average effect, which assumes that all children are similarly affected,” said corresponding author Christian King, PhD, Department of Health Management and Informatics, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA. “A greater understanding about how food insecurity affects children differently is necessary to respond properly to the issue.”

This study used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a sample of children born to mostly low-income urban mothers, to examine associations between food insecurity and child cognitive outcomes and behavioral problems. This study focused on 5,000 couples and their children born between 1998 and 2000 in 20 large urban cities. Over the course of the study, both parents were interviewed at regular intervals.

Two tests evaluated the children’s cognitive development with a parent-reported checklist measuring both externalizing and internalizing behaviors. Examples of externalizing behaviors included whether the child argued a lot, was disobedient, or destroyed things. Examples of internalizing behaviors included whether the child was worried, sulked a lot, was shy, or refused to talk. Food insecurity was assessed at the household level.

The study used quantile regression to examine how food insecurity affects child cognitive and behavioral outcomes. This means of analysis was particularly effective in finding associations between independent and dependent variables in this multifaceted issue.

After analysis, household food insecurity was associated with more behavior problems (both externalizing and internalizing), and the negative association was greatest for children with the most behavior problems. Because child behavior problems have negative consequences, such as lower educational attainment and a greater risk of delinquency, food insecurity may increase these negative consequences and social disparities among children. These associations remained statistically significant even after accounting for other factors such as maternal depression, parenting stress, and material hardship.

“These results support the importance of increasing mindfulness about possible food insecurity among students and suggests that behavioral problems and poor cognitive outcomes may have underlying roots in food insecurity,” said Dr. King. “School-based nutrition assistance programs could improve behavioral and cognitive outcomes, reduce absenteeism, and improve educational attainment in vulnerable children.”


Notes for editors
The article is “The Unequal Impact of Food Insecurity on Cognitive and Behavioral Outcomes among 5-Year-Old Urban Children,” by Savannah Hobbs, MEd, and Christian King, PhD ( It will appear in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, volume 50, issue 7 (July 2018) published by Elsevier.

Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Eileen Leahy at +1 732 238 3628 or to obtain copies. To schedule an interview with Dr. Christian King, Department of Health Management and Informatics, University of Central Florida, please call +1 407 823 4146 or email

An audio podcast featuring an interview with Dr. Christian King is located at Excerpts from the podcast may be reproduced by the media; contact Eileen Leahy to obtain permission.

About the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (JNEB)
The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (JNEB), the official journal of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior (SNEB), is a refereed, scientific periodical that serves as a resource for all professionals with an interest in nutrition education and dietary/physical activity behaviors. The purpose of JNEB is to document and disseminate original research, emerging issues, and practices relevant to nutrition education and behavior worldwide and to promote healthy, sustainable food choices. It supports the society’s efforts to disseminate innovative nutrition education strategies, and communicate information on food, nutrition, and health issues to students, professionals, policy makers, targeted audiences, and the public.

The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior features articles that provide new insights and useful findings related to nutrition education research, practice, and policy. The content areas of JNEB reflect the diverse interests of health, nutrition, education, Cooperative Extension, and other professionals working in areas related to nutrition education and behavior. As the Society's official journal, JNEB also includes occasional policy statements, issue perspectives, and member communications.

About Elsevier
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Media contact
Eileen Leahy
+1 732 238 3628