People often think food insecurity means the same thing as hunger, but it’s more complicated than that, says Maryah Fram, an associate professor in the College of Social Work.
“Addressing food insecurity is not just about getting kids and families more food,” she says. “For children, the effects of food insecurity involve worry, fear, stigma, shame and anxiety.”
She remembers an interview with an elementary school student who didn't eat breakfast, so his mommy had a meal to be strong at work. She also shares the experience of a high school student who didn’t have enough food to provide energy for both sports and homework. He chose to quit sports.
“He loved sports. They made him happy, but he thought it was more important to be able to focus on his homework,” Fram says. “We don't want kids to have to choose between developmentally healthy activities that help them figure out who they are. They shouldn't have to make those choices.”
Grounded in her practice background in early childhood education, childhood mental health and early intervention, Fram’s research concentrates on informing programs and policies to promote the wellbeing of children and families living in poverty. In 2009, she and a colleague, funded by the USDA, studied how families make decisions about food, meals and budgeting when resources are tight. What they found – children’s experiences of food insecurity are quite different than their parents’ or guardians’ – has become central to Fram’s research.
One reason for the discrepancy is that it's hard for one person to know if another person feels hungry or worried. But, Fram says, it's also because children try to hide concerns or fears to avoid adding to their parents’ stress.
Based on that initial research, Fram has worked on subsequent studies to measure how children report food insecurity. She and her research partners have also collaborated on USDA-funded projects to examine the relationship between child food insecurity, diet quality and physical activity; to examine child- versus adult-reported food insecurity among Hispanic families; and to identify key factors associated with a household having "very low food security" – the most severe type of food insecurity.
What do you hope will be the impact of this research?
I'm hopeful understanding children’s specific experiences will help tailor policies and programs to meet their needs. We know there are places where families simply need more access to food or better quality food. We also need to think carefully about appropriate benefit levels for social safety net programs to make sure children have enough to eat. We have a range of community-based efforts to shore up some of the gaps. Our research pointed to the importance of delivering those programs in ways that reduce children's worries while protecting them from embarrassment or stigma.
We’ve also developed a tool for asking children to learn accurately from them about their food insecurity experiences. It has been validated in a study spanning 13 countries and is available free for anyone working with children in various situations from schools and recreation to child welfare settings.
When a child is experiencing food insecurity, how does that affect their development or school success?
Being hungry is stressful and scary. It makes you sleepy and uncomfortable, so children are less able to focus on learning. Even when a child has enough food in their belly, they may be distracted or worried because they know their mom skipped breakfast so they could eat. We also know that when kids are embarrassed about their food situation, they tend to have more behavioral issues, and they might be less likely to invite friends over.
How important are school meal programs in alleviating food insecurity?
Knowing their children will get those meals at no cost is critical to many households. We take for granted how much we ask of our schools. It’s not just about academics, and COVID was a powerful reminder. When schools shut down, many districts worked quickly to find ways to make meals available to families. There's a tendency to say if they're hungry, give them more food, but that can be oversimplifying. Part of what kids get when they eat at school is consistency, stability and social context that is hard to replace.
Tell us about your work with UNICEF about school meals during COVID.
I worked with other researchers to write a concept note and develop a model that attends to both the nutritional and the non-nutritional pathways through which school meals impact kids – such as the social environment and modeling healthy eating behaviors. Schools provide relationships with teachers and other caring adults who notice when kids don't have enough to eat. In addition to school meals, staff can refer families to services and local resources. All those things that teachers notice are part of what goes away when schools shut down.
You’ve also had conversations about food insecurity with students on South Carolina’s campus. What have you learned?
We know many college students experience food insecurity, but no one yet knows just how many, or what their experiences are. Students for whom college is a financial stretch may be at particular risk for food insecurity. For instance, if a student's whole family is supporting them to be the first to graduate college, money for meals may be tight. Students are also likely on their own for the first time and may not know how to plan a food budget or prepare healthy meals. I'm really proud of the level of support from our university working together across campus to address food insecurity through programs such as the Gamecock Pantry, which provides free food and toiletries in a confidential way. We are especially excited about the rollout of the FoodShare program on our USC campus, as a small pilot last year in the College of Social Work, and expanded this year thanks to the hard work of our BSW and MSW students, and with support from USC SNAP-Ed and a grant from the Sisters of Charity.