Toddlers living in food-insecure families are likelier to perform poorly when they enter school, a recent study found. It’s more evidence that SNAP and WIC, by reducing food insecurity, can pay off both now and in the future.
The researchers focused on children who didn’t exhibit developmental delays at age 2 but had poor academic or behavioral outcomes when they entered kindergarten just a few years later. Some 24 percent of 2-year-olds fall into this category. The study, intended to help pediatricians identify these toddlers during routine doctor visits so they could receive extra support, found that food insecurity was one of the most reliably predictive factors. The American Academy of Pediatrics already encourages pediatricians to screen for food insecurity and provides a tool to help them.
Food insecurity is widespread among young children and has serious and long-lasting consequences. One in six families with children under age 6 — that’s 2.9 million families — were food-insecure in 2015. In more than 40 percent of these families, the children themselves were food-insecure. (In the other families, the adults devoted their limited food resources to their children.) Food insecurity in households with children is linked to inadequate intake of important nutrients, deficits in cognitive development, behavioral problems, emotional distress, and poorer health in childhood.
Moreover, poverty during childhood can affect people’s physical, mental, and economic well-being as adults. For example, family income early in childhood appears to matter for a range of employment outcomes in adulthood, including earnings and work hours.
By reducing food insecurity among very young children, SNAP and WIC have positive impacts that last well beyond kindergarten.