Hunger, Food Insecurity, and Child Obesity

Year: 2002

Research Center: Department of Nutrition at the University of California, Davis

Investigator: Townsend, Marilyn, and Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez

Institution: University of California, Davis

Project Contact:
Marilyn Townsend
University of California, Davis
Department of Nutrition
3150D Meyer Hall
One Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616-8669
Phone: 530-754-9222


While the prevalence of obesity is increasing among children of all socioeconomic groups, obesity is most common among children of low socioeconomic status. At the same time, many low-income households with children report that they have difficulty in meeting their food needs. The development of a Federal measure of food security has made it possible to consistently monitor the difficulties that households experience in meeting their food needs. In 2001, about 13 million children lived in food-insecure households, in which, according to the Federal definition, availability of food was limited or uncertain because of financial constraints. Recent studies have found a positive association between food-related material hardship and overweight among U.S. women. This study considered whether a positive association between overweight and food-related material hardship also exists among children.

The authors examined the relationship between a measure of food-related material hardship and child overweight for Mexican-American, non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic White boys and girls ages 2- 19. They combined several years of data from the Continuing Survey of Food Intakes for Individuals (CSFII) to examine a nationally representative sample of 6,473 children. The data provide information on the reported height and weight for each child. The authors adjusted the values of height and weight to account for the error typically found in self-reported measures, and used the adjusted values to calculate an indicator of whether the child was overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.

Surveyed households reported whether they had (1) enough of the kinds of food they wanted to eat, (2) enough but not always the kinds of food they wanted to eat, (3) sometimes not enough to eat, or (4) often not enough to eat. The authors categorized households that indicated that they had enough of the kinds of food they wanted to eat as food secure and all other households as food insecure. Note that this measure of food security differs from the Federal measure just described, which is assessed by a series of 18 questions about a household’s difficulties in meeting its food needs due to financial constraints.

The authors found that 12 percent of children are overweight, and another 16 percent are at risk of becoming overweight. A child’s risk of becoming or being overweight increases as their dietary energy intake, saturated fat intake, or time spent watching television increases, and decreases as their household income relative to the poverty line increases.

About three-fourths of children live in households categorized as food secure, according to the study’s definition. The authors separated children into four age groups and found that food insecurity is positively associated with overweight and risk of overweight among children ages 12-15 and children ages 16-19. They also separated children according to their race and ethnicity and found no significant relationship between overweight and food insecurity among non- Hispanic White children of any age. However, they found a positive association between overweight and food insecurity for several age groups of Mexican- American and non-Hispanic Black children. Food insecurity is positively associated with overweight and risk of overweight for non-Hispanic black children ages 12-15 and Mexican-American children ages 6-11.

The study results show that older minority children who are food insecure are more likely to be overweight than those who are food secure. The authors noted that corroboration of this finding may guide the development of education interventions that accompany food assistance programs, such as the Food Stamp Program, available to food-insecure families.