A recent study published in December in the “Journal of School Health” explored the issue of food insecurity in a Vermont middle school, defined in the report as a “reduced availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods” or a limited ability to acquire food in a socially acceptable manner. Food security, the report noted, is particularly important for children and can have health implications in both the short- and long-term.
In the study, students were issued a 23-item survey designed to assess their relative level of food insecurity. 20 percent of the children were found to be living in a food insecure household, with no significant differences with regard to age, sex or BMI percentile. Those students who were designated as food insecure were found to be less likely to eat breakfast at home. In addition, while 75.9 percent of children in food secure households were found to exercise on a daily basis, only 62 percent of children in food insecure households did.
2008 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture cites the number of Americans living in food insecure households as 49.1 million, including 16.7 million children. In the state of Vermont, almost one eighth of families are said to be food insecure, including 23,000 children.
According to the report, having access to adequate food is especially critical in the childhood years. Food insufficient children frequently suffer stomach and headaches, as well as an increased frequency of colds. Food insufficient children are also more likely to repeat a grade, score lower in mathematics, are more likely to have seen a psychologist and are more likely to have been suspended from school.
In adolescents, there exists a strong correlation between food insecurity and depression and mood disorders, as well as suicidal symptoms. Food insufficient adolescents are more likely to experience a chronically low mood and thoughts of death. Given its prevalence and associated negative implications, food security and insecurity remains an issue of major concern to nutrition and health professionals, as well as educators and policy makers.
Federally-funded breakfast and lunch programs can however serve as powerful safety nets to protect children from the adverse outcomes of food insecurity. Specifically, the report noted, school meal programs have been found to improve students’ diets. Furthermore, participation in school breakfast and lunch programs as well as the Food Stamp program has repeatedly been shown to decrease the likelihood a child becomes obese.
With these results in hand, Vermont educators and policy makers can work towards strengthening Vermont’s school meal programs. With better established food policies, Vermonters can look forward to lessening the frequency of food insecurity in the state.