Expert explains child food insecurity
Almost nine million children under the age of six suffer from food insecurity in the United States, said Mariana Chilton, an associate professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy at Drexel University.
In “Hunger and Income Inequality: Why They Matter for Public Health,” a seminar held at the Food Science Building on the Cook campus yesterday, Chilton said approximately 17 million children live in food insecure homes. Overall, she said about 14 percent of households have food insecurity or limited access to enough food.
“Children from food insecure homes suffer from more headaches, hospitalizations, mental health issues [and other problems],” she said. “Failure to thrive is responsible for about 10 percent of pediatric hospitalizations.”
Chilton said failure to thrive is the clinical form of hunger, in which people lack direct access to food. A milder form of hunger is defined as having food, but not having consistent access to enough food.
At the opposite end of the hunger spectrum is food security, where people have no problems or limitations with their access to food, she said.
As director of the Drexel University Center for Hunger-Free Communities, Chilton said she tracks food insecurity and related factors in families with developing children.
Paul Breslin, professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, said Chilton is an expert in the issues of poverty and hunger. He said her experience within the field of community health and nutrition is why she was invited to the University.
Chilton said she focused her research on children within the first three years of their lives.
“We think about infant weight, infant mortality, preterm birth [and] then we track them in schools,” she said. “There’s a whole window when we’re not tracking them — they’re almost invisible to the world of public health.”
About two thirds of the brain develops during this time, she said. How it develops affects the rest of a person’s life.
Chilton said young children have died of starvation in the past. The introduction of the modern food stamp program helped reduce this mortality rate to zero.
“Last year there was a major decrease in SNAP benefits on November 1st,” she said. “Insecurity rose, and we can trace that to the food stamps.”
Other factors that affect a child’s development include access to housing and utilities, Chilton said. Her team compared children in subsidized housing with children who qualified for it, but did not live in it.
They found that children not in subsidized housing are eight times more likely to be underweight, she said.
Energy insecurity was also tracked. One family qualified as housing secure because they had a home, but did not have any running utilities, including electricity, water and gas.
The children in that family suffered from increased illness, Chilton said.
“Not only is there food insecurity in our country that causes health problems, [it] causes children not to do well in school ... there’s a lot of societal damage,” she said.
She said increasing the dialogue was important to fix this issue.
Chilton said she helped found “Witnesses to Hunger,” a group of impoverished mothers who documented their lives. Specifically, “Witnesses to Hunger” documented their housing and nutrition. The goal is to express what living in poverty was like, she said.
Ensuring the impoverished could join the national dialogue on poverty was a key goal.
“The families that live in poverty know [what it is like], they’ve known it for years,” Chilton said. “The people running the country don’t realize the depth of the poverty.”
Appealing emotionally had more of an effect than appealing with numbers. She said Sen. George McGovern galvanized the modern food stamp program when he saw a child standing outside a lunchroom because he had no money for food.
Nearly one in seven people living malnourished is a horrible statistic, Breslin said. Globally, about one billion people therefore lack sufficient access to food.
“It’s not the numbers that’s going to move people, it’s the emotional experience,” Chilton said. “People in Congress need to be experiencing something like shame [to have an impact].”
Breslin said individual stories are needed for people to relate. Without those stories, he said people only see statistics.
Mel Bandler, a Rutgers alumna, said the government should improve living costs. More importantly, she said more people should take advantage of any assistance provided by the government.
Everyone receives some form of government assistance, whether it takes the form of a mortgage, financial aid or subsidies, Chilton said.
Many people were against government assistance because of its associated stigma, Bandler said. He said people should unite around public assistance rather than see it as a negative idea.
Changing the poverty line to reflect inflation and the cost of living in the 21st century is a step the government should take, she said. Bandler also said factors such as childcare and services such as transportation should be counted to help people living in America.
Chilton said raising the federal minimum wage is another key step.
“People want to work,” she said. “A lot of times families that are food insecure are working, but they [still] don’t make enough to feed themselves and their children.”