In Summer: Both hunger and obesity rise among children

June 7, 2016
Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World

Editor’s note: This post is part of a weekly, year-long series called the Nourishing Effect. It explores how hunger affects health through the lens of the 2016 Hunger Report. The report is an annual publication of Bread for the World Institute.

By Derek Schwabe

Ah, summer — fondly thought of a time of relaxation for children nationwide. But for a large and growing segment of U.S. families, children are not relaxing, because when school–and school meals — end for the summer, their families struggle to feed them. The result is a sharp rise in two key measures of nutritional imbalance—obesity and hunger. A 2014 report found that six out of seven studies it reviewed had documented accelerated summer weight gain in at least one portion of its child study group. One of the studies, which looked at trends in body mass index (the most commonly used gauge of overweight and obesity) among black, white, and Hispanic children, measured far steeper increases in the Hispanic and black children in the group, compared with the white children. See the graphic below.

2013 was the first year that more than half of U.S. public school students were low-income — 51 percent, up from about 32 percent in 1989. The steady rise in eligibility for subsidized school meals means that more families are facing economic hardship and struggling to afford sufficient nutritious food. Children whose family incomes are 130 percent or less of the poverty level are eligible for free school meals, and those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level qualified for reduced-price meals. These translate to incomes of just under $32,000 and about $45,000 a year, respectively, for a family of four (for whom the poverty level is $24,420). As Bread for the World has emphasized, economists agree that families must have an income of 200 percent of the poverty level to meet their basic needs.

In other words, the children who receive free or reduced price meals at school need them. For some,  school lunch may be the only full meal they eat all day. So it’s not surprising that when low-income parents, most of whom are already working full-time to make ends meet, lose a nutritional lifeline like school meals, they are forced to buy cheaper, less nutritious food. And at times, adults and sometimes children may have to skip meals altogether.

It makes sense that food insecurity is a result of poverty. But what may not be obvious is that low-income people are often more vulnerable to obesity as well. Here are three of the main reasons for this: 

  • More nutritious, healthy food is less accessible to low-income people than highly processed, calorie-dense foods, both because it costs more and because it is harder to find in lower-income neighborhoods, which often have fewer full-service grocery stores that sell fresh produce.
  • Low-income communities also usually have fewer resources to promote healthy lifestyles &mdashp; e.g., fewer parks and green spaces, fewer recreational centers, and fewer safe places for children to play outside.
  • Low-income people, both children and adults, live with high levels of stress. This can make them more vulnerable to depression and other mental health problems. Both stress and depression have been linked to obesity and food insecurity. We hear about these connections frequently from Bread for the World advocates who have experienced poverty, particularly single parents like Barbie or Dawn.
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Underutilized programs such as the Summer Meals Program can help fill the nutritional gaps that appear when school’s out. Only one in six children who qualifies for school meal assistance also receives summer meals — a slight improvement over the one in seven figure of a few years ago. Another option is to increase SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits for families during the summer months. This has proven highly effective in reducing child food insecurity. 

Because conditions common in food-insecure families (e.g., episodes of food scarcity; relying on cheaper, calorie-dense foods to stretch grocery dollars; stress and depression) are all also risk factors for weight gain, we need to think of obesity and food insecurity as co-occurring health problems. Poverty increases a household’s vulnerability to both, and a healthy diet prevents or cures both.

Read more about the relationship between hunger, obesity, and health in the 2016 Hunger Report, The Nourishing Effect: Ending Hunger, Improving Health, Reducing Inequality.

Derek Schwabe is a research associate in Bread for the World Institute. 

Underutilized programs such as the Summer Meals Program can help fill the nutritional gaps that appear when school’s out. 

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