November 12, 2021

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Childhood hunger is a problem on several levels

David Bethuram

Not getting enough food to eat on a daily basis is something most of us don’t think about. But for as many as 13 million children and their parents, food insecurity is a real problem. Across the United States, there are millions of children who will go to bed tonight without getting enough food to meet their daily nutritional needs. This includes 239,540 children in Indiana.

Statistics show that one in every seven Indiana children is food insecure. What does that mean? It means that these children may not know where their next meal is coming from. Some of them will be fed; many will not. Some may even go for several days without a healthy, well-balanced meal.

We must understand that childhood hunger is about more than just the immediate need for food. That immediate need is serious enough, but prolonged hunger has numerous detrimental effects on a child’s well-being. That’s why it’s so important that we all work together to eliminate childhood hunger. If you need a good reason to get involved with your local Catholic Charities, consider the effects of childhood hunger listed below.

Reduced learning ability

Scientific studies have shown that nutritional deficiencies negatively impact learning ability. Children who live with hunger do not perform as well in school. One particular study out of Quebec showed that hungry children were two times more likely to also show symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Malnutrition and ADHD combined can hinder educational progress significantly.

Along with reduced learning ability is reduced cognition and memory. Children who live with food insecurity do not recall things as readily, do not tend to think clearly, and do not tend to retain information as well. Some of this is undoubtedly due to malnutrition, but some of it is also due to the greater tendency toward ADHD.

Emotional problems

Another study from Canada demonstrated that childhood hunger was linked to depression and suicidal tendencies during late adolescence and early adulthood. Although the mechanism behind this link is not clearly understood, it is surmised that food insecurity increases the likelihood of depression and other emotional problems among children. Leaving both the emotional problems and childhood hunger untreated can lead to mental instability that contributes to depression and suicidal thoughts.

Hungry children demonstrate a number of mood and behavioral disorders as well. Food insecurity can interrupt a child’s attachment to his or her parents, leading to a parent-child relationship that remains strained as long as food insecurity is a problem.

Chronic illness

A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that persistent childhood hunger can lead to poor health in adulthood. The report surmised that a lengthy list of chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma, and autoimmune diseases, could be linked to childhood hunger.

Increased risk of obesity

Although an increased risk for obesity may seem counterintuitive here, it’s not. Children who live in hunger during their younger years tend to not develop very good eating habits. When they do eat, the food given to them is likely to be cheap, unhealthy food with questionable nutritional value.

As a child exposed to this sort of eating grows and has access to more food, his or her tendency will be to eat unhealthy food. And because the child has never learned healthy eating habits, an overindulgence in unhealthy foods can lead to obesity.

Childhood hunger is a problem on so many levels. We as a Church need to band together to bring it to an end.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. E-mail him at

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