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Part 1: 5 short-term effects of food insecurity on kids

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

According to a recent study by The Brookings Institution, 14 million children in the US alone are not getting enough to eat. This number is much higher than in 2018, or even during the recession of 2008. For those of us who have faced food insecurity ourselves, it may be easy to empathize with how these children are feeling. There are many short and long-term physical and mental effects of food insecurity in children that demonstrate how hunger is much more than the discomfort of an empty belly. In part 1 of this series, we’ll look at five of the primary short-term impacts.

1. Malnourishment is one common consequence of not being able to eat enough. Not getting enough nutrients means kids’ growing brains and bodies do not get what they need to make it through the day. This makes everything hard - learning, interacting with others, and performing normal daily activities, like playing or chores. Malnourishment also puts kids at higher risk of getting sick.

2. Fatigue is another result of lack of nutrition. For a hungry child, the exhaustion that results from simply keeping your body active when it’s not getting the nutrients it needs makes it hard to concentrate on school or have the energy to play with friends. Being tired also affects their mood, making them feel sick and irritable. For older children, fatigue also means they are less likely to participate in extracurricular activities that can positively impact their future, such as playing sports, joining clubs, and volunteering.

3. Behavioral issues are a common product of hunger, including depression, anxiety, aggression, and attention disorders. The American Psychological Association notes that “hungry children exhibited 7 to 12 times as many symptoms of conduct disorder (such as fighting, blaming others for problems, having trouble with a teacher, not listening to rules, stealing) than their at-risk or not-hungry peers... children classified as “hungry” show increased anxious, irritable, aggressive and oppositional behavior in comparison to peers.”

4. Embarrassment and shame happens when people at any age are stigmatized when they ask for help or receive social services. Children facing food insecurity are often embarrassed about their current situation, causing them to hide their needs or feel a sense of shame throughout their lives. Some children face teasing or discrimination by their peers for being poor, including embarrassment about their clothing and lunches. The effects of shame have immediate and lasting impacts on mental health and sense of self-worth.

5. Poor performance in school is one of the end results of all the negative effects above (American Psychological Association). Hunger is one of the most basic human needs. If that need is not met, the body focuses all of its attention on fixing that problem; education is simply less important for survival. The ability to concentrate and learn is even more difficult during the era of remote school, as parents are multi-tasking their own jobs while ensuring their children are attending online school.

These are just a few of the short-term impacts that food insecurity and hunger can have on children. In part 2, we’ll look at how these can have long-term impacts on a child, which can last well into adulthood.

The Snack Sack was founded to respond to the increased food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and to better support children learning at home through healthy and fun snacks. Donate now.

Brenna Kutch (they/them or she/her) is a bureaucratic activist who spends their time writing strongly worded opinions, joining human rights causes, and over-committing. You can read more or get in touch at

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