Combating Food Insecurity in Early Childhood

The following blog post is the third in our series celebrating the Week of the Young Child (#WOYC18).


Just watch a group of active preschoolers on the playground and it’s easy to see that their growing bodies demand energy. Much of the fuel that allows them to be physically active comes from the food they eat. Unfortunately, many children across the country have limited access to food necessary for healthy development. Approximately one in six households (or 17 percent) with children under age six faced food insecurity in 2015, meaning access to adequate food was limited by lack of money or other resources. Even the country’s youngest children struggle to have access to the food they need: 53 percent of all infants born in the United States are served by the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which provides supplemental food and nutrition education to pregnant women and mothers with young children who are low-income or nutritionally at-risk.

A young child living in a food insecure home is unlikely to consistently receive the sufficient nutrients her body and brain need to develop properly. Deprivation of nutrients prevents the child’s brain from fully forming crucial neural connections needed for memory, attention, social skills and the physical demands of childhood. It’s no wonder that young children who are food insecure are more likely to be hospitalized. Children lacking food security also show smaller gains in math and reading from kindergarten through third grade. Even children in families on the cusp of food insecurity have poorer outcomes than their food secure counterparts, including greater risk for developmental delays and overall worse health outcomes. 


Little Girl EatingGiven the negative impact that even marginal food insecurity can have on young children, it’s important that food assistance programs remain accessible to everyone who qualifies. Certain current policy proposals threaten access to these programs. The most recent House version of the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 includes a $20 billion cut in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits over 10 years. These cuts would cause more than 1 million low-income households to have their SNAP benefits reduced or ended altogether. Similarly, proposed changes to public charge policies and overall anti-immigrant sentiment have already had a chilling effect on immigrant families’ enrollment in SNAP and WIC. Though the proposed changes would only impact their attempts to gain permanent residency, immigrant parents across the country are cancelling appointments, requesting disenrollment and asking that their records be purged due to fears that participation in food assistance programs will harm their attempts to gain citizenship or may get them deported. 

CSSP is working with national organizations and directly in communities to help counteract childhood food insecurity. Our Project DULCE deploys family specialists in pediatric clinics to help identify and meet the needs of families with infants. Over a 2 year period, DULCE has connected more than 700 families specifically to nutritional supports. As part of the Protecting Immigrant Families Campaign, CSSP is working with partners such as CLASP and the National Immigration Law Center to push back against policies attempting to restrict or discourage access to programs that help immigrant families meet their most basic needs. 

The good news is that there are several ways early childhood stakeholders can help combat child food insecurity through the unique roles they play. Early care and education providers, including home-based and center-based child care providers, can work with local SNAP, WIC and other food program offices to get parents information about programs for which they or their children may qualify. Local child care licensing agencies can work with food access organizations to help more child care providers become Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) providers, which allows more children to receive nutritious meals and snacks right in their child care settings. States agencies that administer the Child Care and Development Fund can align their child care Quality Rating and Improvement System standards with those of CACFP to streamline the monitoring process of child care providers. These are just some of many options to combat food insecurity in young children. For more information about food insecurity in early childhood and CSSP’s recommendations to address the issue, see our policy brief.

Erin Robinson is a policy analyst at CSSP.