May 2001

From University of Michigan

Low-income, hungry children sick more often

ANN ARBOR---Low-income children and children whose families sometimes or often do not have enough food are at risk for poorer health status, according to a new study.

The study, published in the May issue of American Journal of Public Health, was conducted by Katherine Alaimo, formerly at Cornell University and now a Community Health Scholar at the University of Michigan School of Public Health; Christine Olson, the Hazel E. Reed Human Ecology Extension Professor in Family Policy and a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University; Edward Frongillo Jr., associate professor of nutritional sciences, at Cornell University; and Ronette Briefel, senior research fellow at Mathematica Policy Research Inc., formerly the National Center for Health Statistics.

It is generally accepted that not getting enough to eat has severe consequences for children in countries poorer than the United States, but this is the first national U.S. study to determine if the level of food deprivation domestically is severe enough to affect children's health status. The authors compared low-income children to high-income children, and food-insufficient children with those children whose families had enough to eat.

Analyzing data from the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III), which was conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics from 1988 to 1994, the researchers conclude that "over and above living in poverty, living in families that do not get enough food to eat is associated with adverse health outcomes among U.S. children, and thus food security is a critical component of child health policy."

NHANES surveys are the most comprehensive health and nutrition surveys the federal government conducts. The survey examined more than 11,000 children ages 1-16, and, among other questions, asked a family head to describe the food eaten by the family. During the study period, more than 15 percent of low-income children lived in families that sometimes or often did not get enough to eat---that equates to about 4 million American children.

Children whose families sometimes or often do not have enough food to eat are more likely to have poorer health and to experience more frequent stomachaches and headaches. Preschool children who do not have enough food also have more frequent colds. These relationships were found after statistically controlling for family income and other factors that could be related to being food insufficient or to health, such as family characteristics, location, past health risk and environmental risks.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health (http://www.nih.gov/health/).

EDITORS: Contacts at the American Journal of Public Health: for copies of articles, call Vilma Ramos, 202-777-2436; any other media inquiries, call Karin Wallestad, 202-777-2435

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