Feed the Developing Brain!

This month’s issue of Research to Policy discusses the relationship between nutrition and early childhood brain development. As we learn more and more about the importance of the first years of life, we are increasingly aware of the significance of nutrition for the developing brain.

This is a painful issue in Memphis, which was recently singled out as the most food insecure city in America. (Food insecurity means that a family can’t afford enough food to consistently meet their basic needs.)

Nationwide, about 14 percent of families reported that they couldn’t afford to feed their families at some point last year. In comparison, nearly 26 percent of Memphis families report food insecurity. Rates of food insecurity are much higher among African-American and Hispanic households, and considerably higher among families with young children. Without public investment in nutritional supports, these numbers would likely be much worse: Today, more than half of American families where children are raised by parents under 30 are low-income. In Memphis and across the country, these are the families raising our youngest children.

Food insecurity leads to adverse outcomes for young children:

  • When pregnant women lack sufficient nutritious foods, their babies are at greater risk of being born at low birth-weight and dying in infancy.
  • Food insecurity in early childhood threatens cognitive and socio-emotional development.
  • Food insecurity undermines physical growth and development in young children and is associated with poor health later in life.
  • Children who are food insecure have higher rates of mental health issues in adolescence and young adulthood.
  • In food insecure households, children suffer even if they themselves get enough to eat. Parental food insecurity leads to stress, deprivation, and lethargy, which translate into poor outcomes for children.

As a nation, our response to hunger and food insecurity was largely crafted through the New Deal in the 1930s and the War on Poverty in the late-1960s and early 1970s. The programs that resulted include food stamps (now called SNAP), the WIC program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the school breakfast and lunch programs. Collectively, these programs devoted about $90 billion to feeding hungry Americans in 2010.

The WIC program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) is a monthly package of food-specific checks that can be used in grocery stores to buy healthy food.  WIC was modeled after a supplemental feeding program at St. Jude Hospital in Memphis. According to the Food Research and Action Center, at any given time in America half of all pregnant women and half of all infants depend on WIC.

Meanwhile, every month, SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the renamed Food Stamp program) helps to feed more than 41 million Americans. Children account for half of all SNAP participants, and families with children receive 80 percent of all benefits. It’s estimated that at some point during their childhoods, half of all American children – and 90 percent of African-American children – depend on SNAP.

As these figures suggest, food insecurity is a significant issue in the United States, particularly for families with young children. Federal food assistance programs are one of the few safeguards supporting the development of children in these families.

At the same time, public support for nutrition remains meager: SNAP, for example, provides about $4.00 per person per day in food assistance. Anti-hunger activists challenge policymakers to feed themselves for a few days on that amount.

The scope of food insecurity in America reminds us of observations by made by the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith a half century ago. In The Affluent Society, published in 1958, Galbraith argued that alongside a robust market, America needed to make a serious commitment to public investments in order to thrive. Today, the nutritional support programs that supplement the diets of half of newborns and nursing mothers represent one key public investment.

Maintaining the public infrastructure supporting the nutritional well-being of our youngest children is a vital part of the American commitment to equal opportunity and a stronger future.