by DR. JOY JACKSON
September is Hunger Action Month — a time to end hunger and food insecurity. Food insecurity is the lack of regular access to food that would allow an individual to lead a healthy life. According to the USDA, 33.8 million people, about 9 million of which are children, experience food insecurity. According to the latest available statistics, the child food insecurity rate in Polk County was 20.8 compared to Florida at 15.7. While food insecurity has health consequences for adults, it can be especially detrimental to children, who need regular access to healthy food for their growth, development, and emotional well-being.
Causes of Child Food Insecurity
The factors that contribute to food insecurity are multifaceted; lack of housing, low income and poverty, poor access to transportation, and limited nutritional education are just a few. One specific contributor to food insecurity is the food desert. A food desert is a neighborhood where residents with limited resources have a lack of access to healthy food options within a close distance. If an individual lives in an area where the nearest grocery store with healthy food is miles away and they don’t have a car, they might have to resort to shopping at the convenience store or the fast-food restaurant that’s within walking distance instead. Most convenience stores and fast-food restaurants have foods high in sugars, salts, and unhealthy fats. They lack nutrient-rich foods like fresh produce and lean proteins necessary to nourish growing bodies. The lack of access to healthy foods on a regular basis can also instill a lifetime of poor dietary choices that impacts children well into adulthood.
Effects of Child Food Insecurity
The consequences of childhood food insecurity can stretch long after a child has left their youth behind. Proper nutrition is vital for a child’s physical, cognitive, and emotional development. Children who are eating a nutrient-poor diet face higher risk of health conditions such as diabetes and obesity. Kids facing hunger are more likely to miss school, do poorer in school, and have social and behavioral problems. Poor nutrition in the formative years can lead to stunted growth and difficulty with concentration, memory and problem-solving.
How Can We Reduce Child Food Insecurity?
Because the factors that cause food insecurity are complex and interconnected, there is no easy solution. However, initiatives such as community gardens and food pantries, access to transportation, and nutritional education that empowers parents with limited resources to make healthier food choices are a few ways communities fight food insecurity. In Polk County, residents who are economically disadvantaged can get free or reduced bus passes through Citrus Connection’s Transportation Disadvantaged Program. A task force, of which DOH-Polk was part, identified a food desert in a Lake Wales neighborhood and planned The Grove Community Garden to serve the area’s residents. The Garden is set to open this October and hopes to empower residents’ nutritional choices and boost fresh produce supply within the community. By taking steps, both small and large, we can work toward a future where every child has the opportunity to grow, learn, and thrive without the burden of food insecurity.
About the Author: Dr. Joy Jackson, an internal medicine physician, serves the community as director of the Florida Department of Health in Polk County (DOH-Polk). For more information about DOH-Polk, visit mypolkhealth.org. Follow DOH-Polk on Twitter at twitter.com/FLHealthPolk.