Thinking About Hunger and Poverty on Thanksgiving

Mailman School scholars reflect on the health consequences of food insecurity and poverty experienced by millions of Americans.

November 22, 2016

As an official national holiday, Thanksgiving was born not from a Pilgrim feast with Native Americans but in the height of the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln designated the day to express appreciation for “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” Yet as many of us sit down to enjoy a turkey dinner this week, it’s important to remember the millions of Americans who have little in the way of bounty to be grateful for.

More than 42 million Americans live in food-insecure households defined as uncertain of having or unable to buy enough food to meet the needs of all their members. State-level prevalence ranges from 9 percent in North Dakota to 21 percent in Mississippi. Among the most affected are households with children headed by a single woman, and households headed by black and Hispanic individuals.

“The United States is the most wealthy country in the world, yet far too many American children live in families with limited means to afford food,” said Renée Wilson-Simmons, DrPH, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at the Mailman School. “This is a serious threat to our nation’s future that does not get the attention it deserves.”

Families facing food insecurity are known to manage by reducing the amount of food they eat and the kind of food served, and by replacing nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables with calorie-dense foods packed with carbohydrates and sugar. According to an NCCP report, 18 percent of 2- to 9-year olds living in deep poverty—a household income below 50 percent of the poverty line—suffer from obesity.

HUNGER, Poverty, and the Brain

Hunger is also one of several poverty-related stressors that affect childhood development. Research finds that only one in five parents in deep poverty report that their young children are flourishing, a composite measure of curiosity, resilience, affection, and positive mood. Less positive assessments were more common among parents of children who experienced frequent parenting stress.

At a symposium held earlier this year at the American Museum of Natural History, Wilson-Simmons and Virginia Rauh, professor in the Department of Population and Family Health, noted that repeated exposures to adverse childhood experiences remake the architecture of a child’s developing brain, affecting executive function, memories, and learning.

Rauh described her research with colleagues at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health that shows toxic stress can interact with other toxins. Air pollution, for example, may contribute to cognitive deficits and emotional disorders, which, in turn, help perpetuate disadvantage.

Thankfully, science finds that given the proper support, children can recover from toxic stress. “Responsive parenting and high-quality childcare and learning environments each act to buffer against adverse experiences and help the brain adapt,” says Rauh.

Taking Action

NCCP has worked with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on two programs to help parents and other caregivers attend to the social and emotional needs of their children: Project LAUNCH (Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health) and Circle of Security. “We want to promote the healthy development of children and their parents,” said Wilson-Simmons.

But perhaps the most powerful way to alleviate poverty-related stress is by helping families be more financially secure, such as through a living wage, affordable housing, or targeted help with education and nutrition. Last year, the federal government spent $75 billion on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a.k.a. food stamps, which helped 45 million low-income U.S. residents to afford a nutritionally adequate diet. Close to 70 percent of food stamp participants are in families with children.

“As we approach our day of national Thanksgiving—a celebration of the harvest, a family feast at home with our loved ones—we should also recall the suffering so many American families continue to endure,” says Wilson-Simmons. “Let us give thanks for what we have and join together to ensure a life free of hunger and hardship for all. Our vision is of an America where all families are economically secure, strong, and nurturing so that all children can be supported to thrive and grow into healthy adults.”