The Influence of Persistent and Transitional Adult Food Insecurity on Toddler Development

Year: 2008

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

Investigator: Jacknowitz, Alison, and Daphne Hernandez

Institution: American University

Project Contact:
Alison Jacknowitz, Ph.D.
American University
Department of Public Administration and Policy
School of Public Affairs
4400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20016
Phone: 202-885-2137


A substantial body of literature suggests that residing in a household with a child and/or adult experiencing food insecurity has a negative effect on the developmental outcomes of school-age children. Research on the relationship between household food insecurity and socioemotional behavior consistently suggests that household food insecurity is associated with a decrease in positive behaviors, impaired social skills, and an increase in internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. While significant attention has been paid to the influence of food insecurity on school-age children, toddlers have received little attention in the food insecurity literature and no studies exist that focus on the influence of the persistence of food insecurity on toddler development. This research examines (1) characteristics associated with experiencing persistent and transitional adult food insecurity and (2) how persistent and transitional adult food insecurity influences toddler cognitive and motor development, along with toddler’s weight and health status.

The study contributes to the literature in several ways. First, this study focuses on the developmental outcomes of toddlers because there is a dearth of literature on the effects of food insecurity on this age group. Focusing on the developmental outcomes of toddlers is important because scholarly research suggests that nutritional deficiencies during infancy may lead to poor brain development, resulting in cognitive and behavioral difficulties in school-age children and adolescents. Second, with most of the literature on food insecurity and child development measuring food insecurity using a point-in-time measure, the analysis captures food insecurity at two points in time and focuses on various prevalence patterns (that is, persistent and transitional episodes) of food insecurity. By focusing on the prevalence patterns of adult food insecurity, the study attempts to gain a clear picture of the likelihood of experiencing adult persistent and transitional food insecurity and how these prevalence patterns influence a broad set of toddler developmental outcomes. Third, because methodological concerns have been raised concerning food insecurity measured at the household level, the study focuses on food insecurity measured at the adult level.

The analyses use data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), a longitudinal data set collected by the National Center for Education Statistics. The ECLS-B is designed to be nationally representative of children born in 2001 with an oversample of Asian and American Indian children, twins, and low- and very low-birth-weight children. To investigate the influence of food insecurity on toddler development, the first two waves of survey data are used when the child is 9 months of age and 2 years of age. Four mutually exclusive variables capturing the prevalence patterns of food insecurity were created. Adults who experienced food insecurity at both waves of data were classified as persistently food insecure, while adults who only experienced food insecurity at one wave were divided into two groups: those who experienced food insecurity only at the 9-month interview and those who experienced food insecurity only at the 24-month interview. Adults who never experienced food insecurity were classified as never food insecure. The four outcome variables are toddler cognitive and motor development, weight-for-age z-scores, and health status as reported by a parent. Control variables include child, maternal, household, and State characteristics. Further, the 9-month values for the dependent variables are included. Logistic regression models estimated the likelihood of being persistently food insecure, while ordinary least squares (OLS) regression models estimated how persistent and transitional adult food insecurity influence toddler development.

Logistic regression results suggest that disadvantaged families are more likely to be persistently food insecure compared with families who are not persistently food insecure. These differences are smaller and less likely to be statistically significant when toddlers in persistently food-insecure households are compared with those in transient food-insecure households. OLS regression models suggest that toddler development is not influenced by adults experiencing persistent food insecurity. Instead, findings suggest that toddlers residing with an adult who is food insecure have immediate, but small, negative impacts on their development. For example, toddlers in households with an adult who was food insecure at wave 2 only scored 1.5 points (1 percent) lower on cognitive scores and 0.17 points lower (4 percent) on health status. These results are robust to changes in the definition of food insecurity, changing the analysis sample to exclude the nonpoor and excluding the dependent variable at 9 months. Results do not vary by gender.

Given that toddlers residing in households with an adult who is experiencing persistent food insecurity are similar to toddlers in households with an adult who is experiencing transitional food insecurity, outreach efforts do not need to vary by duration of food insecurity. The findings suggest that temporary food insecurity has greater negative outcomes for toddlers than persistent food insecurity, which is counterintuitive. Those who experience persistent food insecurity could have developed coping strategies to address the situation. For example, they may know how to maneuver within the social service system. Hence, providing assistance and information to food-insecure families through family clinics, pediatrician offices, food banks, and early intervention programs may lessen the immediate effect of food insecurity on toddler development.

Direct inquiries about this study to the Project Contact listed above.