Childhood hunger research offers a warning as pandemic threatens food security

Three hundred million children around the world rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. As the COVID-19 pandemic has limited access to many of these programs, new research from the Graduate School of Education’s Sharon Wolf and two colleagues suggests that hunger poses developmental risks for young children. 

Young child sits on front steps with a book in their lap taking a sandwich out of a lunchbox.

Wolf and co-authors Elisabetta Aurino and Edward Tsinigo looked at the effect of food insecurity for children over a three-year period in Ghana using World Bank data. In an article published in PLOS One, they detail how damaging food insecurity can be for young children. 

They found cognitive skills, including academic and memory development, were most sensitive to food insecurity. Any type of food insecurity, even in short periods, was associated with lower literacy, numeracy, and short-term memory skills. Perhaps surprisingly, children who reported hunger issues only once or twice over three years suffered worse outcomes than children who were persistently hungry. 

“We were expecting the kids who were in households experiencing chronic food insecurity to be worse off. But we found that having food insecurity once or twice is worse than having persistent food insecurity. Even if kids have a dip in food insecurity and come out, that’s significant for their development,” says Wolf. 

“Instability, going in and out of poverty or in and out of hardship, is more difficult than being consistently poor. There’s something about instability that’s really consequential.” 

Read more at Penn GSE.