The cruel realities of childhood food insecurity bite hard. Findings of new research show that children feel the economic pressures and hardships faced by their families.
The United Nations estimates 16% of Australian children under 15 years live in food insecure households. The rate among disadvantaged families is extremely high.
For example, pre-COVID-19, 80% of one hundred socioeconomically disadvantaged families in Western Australia were shown to be food insecure.
Food insecurity is the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways” and it disproportionally affects families living with disadvantage.
New research led by Flinders University has focused on disadvantaged children’s own perspectives of their troubled situation to better understand the full impact of food insecurity on their lives.
“Australian children are aware of, experience, and are clearly impacted by food insecurity,” says Dr Stefania Velardo, Senior Lecturer in Health Education at Flinders University.
“However, little is known about Australian children’s firsthand understanding or experience of household food insecurity. This is despite food insecurity being associated with reduced physical, social, and psychological functioning in children.”
“The government’s coronavirus supplements have reduced disadvantage for a lot of these families over the last year, but as benefits are removed, children will be forced back into food insecurity,” says Associate Professor Pollard of Curtin University.
The research – How Do Disadvantaged Children Perceive, Understand and Experience Household Food Insecurity?, by Stefania Velardo, Christina Pollard, Jessica Shipman and Sue Booth – has been published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18084039).
The research focused on children aged 10–13 years from a South Australian charity school holiday camp held in Adelaide that supports severely disadvantaged youth.
The researchers used drawings and emoji scales during semi-structured interviews that revealed information about children’s financial understanding, coping mechanisms, experiences with food preparation, and their compassion for food insecure families.
“Listening to children’s stories about their experience of economic disadvantage allows for a deeper understanding of what food insecurity means for children in different contexts. In our study, the children’s stories shed light on the untenable and uncertain circumstances in which some children find themselves,” says Dr Velardo.
“Children described feelings of sadness and concern associated with food insecurity and discussed numerous coping skills adopted by those around them, including borrowing money for food from family and friends, relying on food charities, rationing food to make it last longer, and limiting food intake to cheaper more filling options. “
“Some children lived in fear of losing their homes and felt sad to see others going without food, including their parents and school friends.”
The research can be used to inform policy and programs.
“Findings clarify some of the ways that children are impacted, and that their voice should be incorporated into discussions about how to respond to household food insecurity in Australia. Their needs and experiences should be considered,” says Associate Professor Pollard.
“Complex family issues surround these children and there is a strong need to listen to their perspectives and work to advocate on their behalf.”
“Social services report that the Government coronavirus supplements alleviated food insecurity for many families when they were in place. This is important, as children notice when their parents are financially stressed. They, like most of us, want to see a fairer world that supports all families.”
“We need to see ongoing support for economically vulnerable families, as it is impacting on children”. Child food insecurity is a relatively hidden and under-researched area that has a lifelong impact on the long-term health of children.