Associations Among Food Insecurity, Food Assistance Programs, and Child Development

Year: 2001

Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Investigator: Kowaleski-Jones, Lori, and Rachel Dunifon

Institution: Department of Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah

Project Contact:
Lori Kowaleski-Jones, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
University of Utah
Department of Family and Consumer Studies
225 South, 1400 East, AEB Room 228
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0080
Phone: 801-585-0074
Fax: 801-581-5156


Few studies have evaluated the link between food insecurity and children’s development. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are Federal programs that have the potential to reduce food insecurity among children and to influence children’s development. This project examined ways in which participation in these programs and levels of food insecurity operate together to influence measures of well-being among children.

Specifically, the authors examined four research questions: (1) What are the roles of WIC and the NSLP in alleviating food insecurity? (2) What is the impact of food insecurity on the development of toddlers and school-aged children? (3) What is the effect of participation in NSLP and WIC on children, and is this effect mediated by levels of food insecurity? and (4) Does participation in WIC or NSLP moderate the effects of food insecurity on children? The results from this project provide insight into the role of two important food assistance programs in alleviating food insecurity and influencing the well-being of U.S. children.

The effect of food insecurity on the development of U.S. children has not been widely researched, though previous research has found food insufficiency to be associated with adverse outcomes among children. Previous research on the WIC program has found positive effects of participation in WIC on infant birth weight, reduced Medicaid expenditures, and children’s nutritional intake. Although there has been little research on the effects of WIC participation on child adjustment and age-appropriate achievement measures, studies have found that WIC has positive effects on verbal ability and infant temperament. Many of the available evaluations of the NSLP focus on the relationship between participating in the program and increased nutrient intake.

The study used data from the 1997 Child Development Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (CDS-PSID), a longitudinal study of a representative sample of the U.S. population. The analyses focus on two samples of children: those under 2 years old in 1997, for whom there are measures of WIC participation in 1997; and those 6-12 years old in 1997, for whom there are measures of participation in the NSLP in 1997.

The authors used logistic regression and Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) methods to estimate the relationships of interest. They also employed methodological techniques to address the selection issues that may bias estimates of the effects of food assistance programs on individual outcomes.

The authors did not find a significant association between participation in the WIC program and food insecurity. While they did observe a positive association between participation in NSLP and food insecurity, the association did not hold when they addressed the selection issue.

The study also estimated the effect of food insecurity on the development of toddlers and school-aged children. Among younger children, food insecurity was associated with higher levels of difficult temperament. Food insecurity was also associated with lower levels of positive behavior among older children. This association persisted in the restricted sample models where selection was addressed. These results suggest that while food insecurity may not affect cognitive outcomes, it does affect the social behaviors of children.

The research investigated the effects of NSLP and WIC participation on child outcomes and examined the potential for these effects to be mediated by levels of food insecurity. The authors found no association between participation in the WIC program and early child outcomes. They found evidence of negative associations between participating in NSLP and achievement, behavior, and health. However, when the authors controlled for selection bias, NSLP participation no longer had significant negative effects on child outcomes. These results demonstrate that selection bias must be addressed in any policy evaluation of the effects of NSLP.

The authors did not find evidence that food insecurity had a mediating effect on the influence of food assistance programs on children. This result suggests that, at least in this sample of children, the effects of participation in food assistance programs on children are not mediated by coexisting levels of food insecurity. Finally, the authors tested whether participation in WIC or NSLP moderated the effects of food insecurity on children. Among older children, they found evidence of one moderating relationship. Logistic regression results indicate that food insecurity and participation in NSLP increase the odds of having health limitations. However, for children in foodinsecure households participating in NSLP, the odds of health limitations are significantly reduced. Thus, participation in NSLP may help protect children from the detrimental effects of food insecurity.