Family Food Decisionmaking: Child and Adult Perspectives on Household Food Practices and Food Insecurity

Year: 2009

Research Center: Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University

Investigator: Fram, Maryah Stella, Edward A. Frongillo, and Sonya J. Jones

Institution: University of South Carolina

Project Contact:
Maryah Stella Fram
University of South Carolina
College of Social Work
Columbia, SC 29208
Phone: 803-777-5945


Household food insecurity is associated with many negative health and well-being outcomes for individuals, including obesity, maternal depression and stress, and diminished physical activity and psychosocial functioning for children. Although food insecurity impacts individual well-being, it also shapes interactions among individuals, including, for example, compromised parent/child interactions, stressful family processes, and changes in family eating patterns and socializing. These interpersonal and intrafamilial dynamics are important both in their direct impact on the well-being of those involved and through their potential influence on household decisionmaking about managing food insecurity.

Existing studies of household food insecurity rely heavily on data collected from mothers. The prioritization of mothers’ experiences may be somewhat warranted in food-insecurity research for several reasons. First, mothers tend to play primary roles in food acquisition within families. Next, mothers are overrepresented in the food-insecure population. Over 30 percent of all single-mother households with children are food insecure. Further, people living in single-parent (mostly single-mother) households represent about 44 percent of all those receiving assistance from the Food Stamp Program (FSP), now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and 17 percent of those using food pantries. Finally, when food assistance programs do not meet a family’s needs, mothers have reported that they absorb the suffering, skipping meals, or cutting back portions so that children will not experience hunger. But without asking children, fathers, or other adults about their experiences, the extent to which mothers’ perspectives and reports accurately reflect household dynamics versus reflecting only one important part of a more complex picture is unclear.

This study extended the understanding of the experiences and consequences of food insecurity by attending to child, father, mother, and other household adult perspectives on food decisionmaking and household food practices. A total of 29 South Carolina families were interviewed, including rural and nonrural families, White and Black families, and families with focal children ranging from 9 to 16 years old. Recruitment took place using fliers, posters, and informational tables at food pantries, soup kitchens, agencies serving low-income families, laundromats, churches, and grocery stores. Interviews (used a semistructured interview guide) were conducted in families’ homes or places that participants identified as being more convenient (for example, a local park). Adult interviews ranged from 45 minutes to nearly 2 hours, whereas child interviews lasted about 30 minutes on average. Interviews were audiotaped, transcribed, de-identified, and coded thematically using Nvivo software. Interview transcripts were coded in an iterative process, reconciling a priori codes based on the interview guide, with codes generated inductively through an open-coding process. Relationships among codes were then assessed, and patterns were explored based on family-member demographics and other characteristics.

Although many parents try to spare their children from food hardships, children often are not fully “buffered.” Moreover, when children are not buffered, the impacts include not only hunger but additional psychosocial domains critical for children’s growth and development. Specifically, children are affected by the awareness of household food insecurity and by taking responsibility for trying to make food resources last. Awareness falls into three main dimensions: cognitive awareness (knowing that food is scarce), emotional awareness (worry, sadness, or anger related to food scarcity), and physical awareness (hunger, pain, tiredness, and changes in nutritional quality related to food scarcity). Responsibility ranges from participation (going along with parental food management strategies) to initiation (child-initiated strategies for making food resources last) to resource generation (child activities aimed at bringing more food or money for buying food into the household). Parents are unaware of some of the experiences of food insecurity by their children, which implies that the prevalence of child hunger and food insecurity may be underestimated when estimates are based solely on maternal reporting.

Participation in the FSP is an effective buffer against children’s most severe experiences of food insecurity. For instance, only one child reported physical awareness of food insecurity (for example, hunger) in a family in which parents reported receiving food stamps. This one report occurred in a family with multiple, complex issues. In addition, when parents participated in the FSP, children reported less worry about food issues. Although these children sometimes had to forego foods they preferred, eat inexpensive and/or less healthy foods, assist with budgeting, and use their own money to help buy food, the children expressed confidence that parents would ultimately manage to provide them with enough food. Families that were food insecure but did not receive FSP benefits included those with some of the highest levels of child-reported food hardships, such as child hunger, child worry, and child responsibility for making food resources last. Parents in these families reported complex problems, such as severe and persistent mental illness, history of trauma and/or domestic violence, recent job loss, recent relocation, or caring for sick family members. Such problems may have been barriers both to accessing and maintaining FSP benefits and to being more broadly responsive to children’s needs (including food needs).

Overall, this study shed new light on child food insecurity and hunger by suggesting that children have experiences of food-related worries and hardships distinct from, though related to, parental experiences, behaviors, resource choices, and struggles. Additional research is needed to further explain children’s experiences in diverse settings in the United States; assess the prevalence, distribution, correlates, and consequences of child food insecurity; and explain methods to best to assist families with different sets of problems and capacities to maximize the impact of food assistance programs.

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