Early life exposure to food insecurity has lasting effects, study finds

Infographic depicting food insecurity in households with children
Aasha Turner/Staff

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A research article published Jan. 2 observed Latinx farmworker children and found that exposure to food insecurity early in life can have a lasting impact on children’s growth.

To see if there was an association between early life exposure and food insecurity and obesity, researchers studied pregnant women and their children from the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas, a running birth cohort study. These women are mostly Latinx and from households with agricultural workers, according to Ryan Gamba, study lead author, UC Berkeley alumnus and assistant professor at California State University, East Bay.

Between 39% and 64% U.S. households of Latinx farmworkers and children have uncertain access to nutritionally adequate food, compared to 21.9% of all Latinx households with children and 16.5% of all U.S. families, according to a UC Berkeley School of Public Health article.

The study revealed decreases in body mass index in children age 2 to 3.5 and increases among boys aged 3.5 to 5, according to Gamba.

“It was interesting to see the difference in sex,” Gamba said in an email. “Other research suggests (…) this may be due to parent feeding practices, where after a period of potential food shortage or concern, parents might overfeed boys relative to girls.”

Gamba added that immediate decreases in growth during years 2 to 3.5 may be because of household food shortages.

Although body mss index differentials may seem small, the study still found that children who do not have enough food in the short-term will not grow as much as children who do not have the same concerns, Gamba said in the article.

“These findings are important because it does indicate that early life exposure to food insecurity may affect growth later in life,” Gamba said in the email. “We do not know if this is because of biological changes or perhaps more likely, changes in parenting that emerge in response to the food insecurity.”

Gamba also discussed how the study’s findings relate to food banks and federal food assistance programs for low-income families, including CalFresh; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP; and Women, Infants and Children SNAP.

However, the needs of populations vary, such as for households without transportation or for pregnant women, Gamba added.

“By supporting programs that have the goal of supporting lower income families with food assistance we could help many families,” Gamba said in the email. “We also need to look to technology and study what methods of food assistance might be most helpful for families.”

Going forward, Gamba will continue to conduct food insecurity research with a focus on students.

Contact Catherine Hsu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @catherinehsuDC.