“What’s for dinner?” Food insecurity and its impact on children.
By Emily Frezza, Assistant Educational Psychologist
Prior to my role as an Assistant Educational Psychologist, I worked for five years as a School Partner and Team Leader for children’s food poverty charity, Magic Breakfast. The charity’s mission ‘no child too hungry to learn’ and seeks to support schools in offering an open-access breakfast provision at the start of the school day.
Despite having worked as a primary teacher in several schools in deprived areas, this role opened my eyes to the extent of poverty and the breadth of the problem in the UK, one of the richest countries in the world.
According to the Department for Work and Pensions (2021), 4.3 million, or 31% of all children in the UK, are living in poverty. 46% of those children from black and ethnic minority groups and 75% are from households where at least one parent works. Concerningly, the number of children in poverty seems to be increasing, with a rise of 0.2 million since 2017.
What is food insecurity?
While poverty can impact many facets of daily life for children, we’ll focus on the experience of food insecurity, here. Food insecurity refers to ‘the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food’ (Food Foundation, 2021).
It is the uncertainty around being able to access sufficient and nutritionally balanced food (Perez-Escamilla & Pinheiro de Toledo Vianna, 2012) - the doubt that one will have food in the fridge or cupboard or enough money to buy a loaf of bread.
A 2018 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations shared that 2.2 million people in the UK were food insecure, with a more recent post-pandemic Food Foundation report giving that figure as 4.7 million (2021).
That equates to 12% of all households with children in the UK.
Psychological impact of food insecurity
A review of recent research has identified a correlation between food insecurity psychological distress (Myers, 2020):
Arenas et al.’s (2019) meta-analysis and systematic review identified food insecurity as a risk factor for depression.
Focussing on the impact of food insecurity on adolescents, Maynard (2019) found that perceived anxiety was higher in females aged between 12 and 17, with sleep disorders, poor memory and stress-related disorders noted more frequently in young adults experiencing food insecurity aged 17 to 21 years (Jebena et al., 2016).
In a piece of qualitative research, Fram et al. (2011) found that even though parents may attempt to shield their children from the reality of limited food provision, children are still aware when food is scarce, noticing if the same, cheap foods are offered and asking parents if and how they would eat.
Furthermore, some children report feeling sad and worried when food was lacking, and embarrassed when parents are forced to call upon charity in order to obtain food.
Significantly, Fram et al. (2011) found in their study that most children seemed to regularly take responsibility in attempting to solve the issue of food scarcity, taking on the mental load for themselves.
This paints a picture of childhood that differs greatly from the care-free image we would hope for a child.
Heflin and Kukla-Acevedo (2019) further identified the psychological impact of food insecurity, demonstrating that children who experienced it between the ages of 5 and 10 were most likely to be involved in criminal activity as young adults.
What’s the role of the EP?
Given the correlation between food insecurity and mental health difficulties and an increased risk in not meeting age-related academic expectations (Pinard et al., 2015), it seems EPs should factor in food insecurity when considering a child or young person’s needs.
I spoke to some of our team to gather their thoughts around the role of the EP in the food insecurity landscape.
"For some schools in certain areas, this seems to be a consistent theme, particularly with little ones who can arrive tired and unsettled in the morning. I look for it more now, especially when prompted by the staff."
"Thankfully the schools... seem to be really on it, offering food to their children and aware that children need it."
There is, however, the recognition that discussing socio-economic factors can be a sensitive topic when talking to parents, with an awareness that the relationship between the EP and parent is key.
Instead, EPs tend gather information indirectly, identifying if parents are struggling generally and ‘if it is something school can support more with’. Some EPs find that Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs (1943) "forms a part of what you do maybe without you even realizing it" although when discussing food, other considerations around sensory needs and eating disorders are also made, in addition to "thinking about the impact of eating and drinking on brain functioning".
According to the EP’s I spoke with, many of our schools are already really good at making food available to the children who need it. However, where it is needed, EPs will suggest a child attends breakfast club, switches to school lunches or has access to snacks.
Food insecurity is a complex sociological and political issue, which can negatively impact mental wellbeing in both children and adults. It is also an issue that must be dealt with sensitively. It seems then that as an EP, an awareness of the prevalence of food insecurity and the impact it can have on children is vital, within the context of a child’s needs.
Signs of Hunger
There is real gratitude for the schools and staff we work with who are already seeking to alleviate food insecurity for the children and young people in their care. However, it may help to be aware of the signs of hunger in children and young people, who may find it difficult to communicate their needs – this could be through an inability to recognise that what they feel is hunger or due to embarrassment or shame. Physically, children can say they have a headache or a stomach ache but lack of food can also cause an inability to concentrate on tasks, feeling lethargic or tired.
The impact of alleviating Hunger
Where schools have chosen to run breakfast provisions, they have found that breakfast has had a significant positive impact across a range of areas. One head teacher at a school in Barnsley shared the following improvements since the start of their school breakfast provision:
Lateness – a BIG impact on lateness. Since starting breakfast, lates have reduced by over 100!
No children crying in the morning.
Behavioural incidents decreased significantly.
Attainment – pupil progress is improved dramatically over the first year, and the small group work that is happening at breakfast is a vital contributor to that.
Improved relationships – all kinds of relationships! Staff, children, parent volunteers, all have better relationships, within and between those groups!
Classes settled and ready to learn – children are happy and keen to come to school!
(Source - Case studies | Magic Breakfast)
Particularly with the Christmas holidays approaching, where children will not have access to food in school, it is worth the extra vigilance and awareness of the impact that food insecurity may be having on our children and young people. If you do have any concerns about food insecurity for any of your children or young people do visit the Magic Breakfast website who may be able to support your school or speak to your EP, or for more information about child poverty in the UK, see www.cpag.com.
For more information about the work of Magic Breakfast visit their website here: https://www.magicbreakfast.com/
Magic Breakfast School Survey (summer 2021): https://www.magicbreakfast.com/Blog/measuring-and-monitoring-school-survey-2021
Magic Breakfast policy report also references some non-Magic Breakfast academic studies about food insecurity and its physical and psychological impacts.
Education Endowment Funds report on the impact that breakfast clubs—and, specifically, Magic Breakfast—have on academic attainment and other outcomes at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. Magic_Breakfast_report.pdf (d2tic4wvo1iusb.cloudfront.net)
Arenas DJ, Thomas A, Wang J, DeLisser HM (2019). A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Depression, Anxiety, and Sleep Disorders in US Adults with Food Insecurity. Journal of general internal medicine. doi:10.1007/s11606-019-05202-4.
Maynard M, Andrade L, Packull-McCormick S, Perlman CM, Leos-Toro C, Kirkpatrick SI. (2018). Food Insecurity and Mental Health among Females in High-Income Countries. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 15(7). doi:10.3390/ijerph15071424.
Department for Work and Pensions (2018). Households Below Average Income, Statistics on
the number and percentage of people living in low income households for financial years
1994/95 to 2016/17. National Statistics. Retrieved on 25/11/21 from
Department for Work and Pensions (2021). Households Below Average Income, Statistics on the number and percentage of people living in low income households for financial years 1994/95 to 2019/20. Retrieved 25/11/21 from Households below average income: an analysis of the income distribution FYE 1995 to FYE 2020 - GOV.UK
Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2018). Europe and central Asia: Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition. Retrieved on 25.11.21 from Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition in Europe and Central Asia 2018 (fao.org)
Food Foundation (2021) A CRISIS WITHIN A CRISIS: The Impact of Covid-19 on Household Food Security. Retrieved on 25.11.21 from FF_Impact-of-Covid_FINAL.pdf (foodfoundation.org.uk)
Fram, M. S., Frongillo, E. A., Jones, S. J., Williams, R. C., Burke, M. P., DeLoach, K. P., & Blake, C. E. (2011). Children Are Aware of Food Insecurity and Take Responsibility for Managing Food Resources. The Journal of Nutrition, 141(6), 1114–1119. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.110.135988
Heflin, C. and Kukla-Acevedo, S. (2019). Childhood and adolescent food security and young adult outcomes. University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research Discussion Paper Series, DP2019-05. Retrieved 25/11/21 from http://ukcpr.org/research.
Jebena MG, Lindstrom D, Belachew T, Hadley C, Lachat C, Verstraeten R et al. (2016). Food Insecurity and Common Mental Disorders among Ethiopian Youth: Structural Equation Modeling. PloS one. 11(11):e0165931. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0165931. [PubMed: 27846283]
Myers, C. A. (2020). Food Insecurity and Psychological Distress: A Review of the Recent Literature. Current Nutrition Reports, 9(2), 107–118. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-020-00309-1
Perez-Escamilla, R. & de Toledo Vianna, R. P. (2012). Food Insecurity and the Behavioral and
Intellectual Development of Children: A Review of the Evidence. 18.
Pinard, C. A., Calloway, E. E., Fricke, H. E., & Yaroch, A. L. (2015). A Cross-Sectional Exploration of Food Security, Depression, and CHAOS in Low-Income Households with Children. 6, 13.