In 2012, nearly 16 million U.S. children, or over one in five, lived in households that were food-insecure, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited access to food.” Even when we control for the effects of other factors correlated with poverty, these children are more likely than others to face a host of health problems, including but not limited to anemia, lower nutrient intake, cognitive problems, higher levels of aggression and anxiety, poorer general health, poorer oral health, and a higher risk of being hospitalized, having asthma, having some birth defects, or experiencing behavioral problems. Many government programs aim explicitly to reduce food insecurity, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). (Other social safety-net programs—for example, the Earned Income Tax Credit—can also help alleviate food insecurity by increasing household income.) The fact that food insecurity remains so high even though the government spent over $100 billion on the various federal food-assistance programs in fiscal year 2012 poses a significant policy challenge.

Food insecurity rates remain stubbornly high for a number of reasons. One is that we don’t fully understand what causes food insecurity or how food assistance and other programs can help alleviate it. Food insecurity has been researched extensively, and this research has helped policy makers and program administrators better address the problem. However, relatively little research has looked at what causes food insecurity among children in the first place, or the effectiveness of public policies, especially on more severe forms of food hardship.

In this policy report, we highlight new research that seeks to fill this gap. Much of this work comes from the Research Program on Childhood Hunger at the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research, which was underwritten by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).