How Does Household Food Insecurity Affect Young Children with Disabilities?

This blog highlights and summarizes a policy brief written by Kevin Gee, an associate professor of Education and a faculty research affiliate with the Center for Poverty & Inequality Research. You can access the full policy brief here

Key Facts

  • Families raising children with disabilities experience higher rates of food insecurity than families raising children without any special needs.
  • In this study, among children with disabilities, household food insecurity was related to a significant decline in attentional focus.
  • Transitioning out of household food insecurity into food security was associated with significant gains in attentional focus and inhibitory control.

Food insecurity is one of many pathways through which the cascading influences of economic hardship can ultimately impact children’s outcomes. Psychological distress resulting from financial strain leads to compromised interactions between children, parents and caregivers, which can in turn negatively influence children’s developmental outcomes. This kind of financial strain and psychological distress has been shown to be more acute among families raising children with disabilities than among families with children that do not have disabilities.

In the United States, approximately 7.1 million children aged 3–21 have disabilities qualifying them for special education services. Families raising children with disabilities experience higher rates of food insecurity, with the difference ranging from about 4.7 % to 11 %. Studies have shown that families raising children with special needs, relative to families with children without special needs, experience an increased probability of worrying that food will run, running out of food, and skipping meals due to lack of money. Reasons for this can include increased medical costs, time allocated toward caring for children with complex needs, and finally, the stress of caring for children with specialized needs.

In a recent study, Kevin Gee set out to explore the association between household food insecurity and the developmental outcomes of children with disabilities. To do this, Gee examined how household food insecurity relates to children with disabilities’ executive functioning and problem behaviors.

Household food insecurity related to a decline in focus

Among children with disabilities, Gee found that household food insecurity was related to a significant decline in attentional focus. He also identified a decline in inhibitory control and an increase in externalizing problem behaviors. For comparison, household food insecurity among children without disabilities was unrelated to attentional focus. For these children, as for children with disabilities, food insecurity was also unrelated to inhibitory control as well as internalizing and externalizing behaviors.

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Gee also looked at the effects of transitions into and out of food insecurity. Children from households who exited food insecurity experienced a gain in their attentional focus and inhibitory control. However, for children without disabilities, neither type of transition related significantly to internalizing or externalizing behaviors.

Strengthen supports for families raising children with disabilities

Children with disabilities raised in homes that became food secure experienced higher attentional focus and inhibitory control skills. These findings suggest that the children who are raised by families that were able to successfully overcome food insecurity — and possibly, the uncertainty, stress, and anxiety in the wake of food insecurity — can benefit developmentally from transitioning into a more food-secure environment.

For practice and policy, these results underscore the need to ensure that supports — especially broader strategies to tackle the root causes of food insecurity such as alleviating economic pressures — are made available and targeted to families raising children with disabilities. Such supports and interventions could improve family functioning and, subsequently, help buffer families from stress and anxiety brought on by economic pressures like food insecurity. Helping caregivers of children with disabilities to manage both precipitating and perpetuating factors of food insecurity, such as stressors within the home, may be an important first step.

Fortunately, there are several available mechanisms to counteract food insecurity head-on by leveraging our public education and social service sectors. For example, offering the National School Breakfast Program has shown to cause reductions in the probability that a child will experience very low food insecurity. Further, linking caregivers to important safety net services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children may not only mitigate the incidence of food insecurity but may buffer its potentially harmful effects on children. Strengthening supports aimed at families raising children with disabilities may not only address underlying factors leading to food insecurity, thereby promoting overall family health and wellness; it may also have critical implications for improving the developmental well-being for children under their responsibility and care.


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