The causes and contexts of food insecurity among children in the U.S. are poorly understood because the prevalence of food insecurity at the child level is low compared to the prevalence of household food insecurity. In addition, caregivers may be reluctant to admit their children may not be getting enough food due to shame or fear they might lose custody of their children.

Based on our ongoing qualitative research with mothers of young children, we suggest that food security among children is related to adverse childhood experiences of caregivers. This translates into poor mental and physical health in adolescence and adulthood, which can lead to inability to secure and maintain meaningful employment that pays a living wage.

In this paper we propose that researchers shift the framework for understanding food insecurity in the United States to adopt a life course approach. This demands we pay greater attention to the lifelong consequences of exposure to trauma or toxic stress—exposure to violence, rape, abuse and neglect, and housing, food, and other forms of deprivation—during childhood. We then describe three case studies of women from our ongoing study to describe a variety of toxic stress exposures and how they have an impact on a woman’s earning potential, her mental health, and attitudes toward raising children. Each woman describes her exposure to violence and deprivation as a child and adolescent, describes experiences with child hunger, and explains how her experiences have shaped her ability to nourish her children. We describe ways in which we can shift the nature of research investigations on food insecurity, and provide recommendations for policy-oriented solutions regarding income support programs, early intervention programs, child and adult mental health services, and violence prevention programs.

Key Take Away Points

  • The study of child food insecurity demands a life course approach.
  • Very low food security among children is associated with exposure to toxic stress.
  • Policies and programs meant to help food insecure families should integrate programs on violence prevention.

Author Biography

Mariana Chilton, PhD, MPH, is Associate Professor at Drexel University School of Public Health and Director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities. Her research focuses on child and household food insecurity among low-income families. She is a Co-Principal Investigator of Children's HealthWatch and founder of the Witnesses to Hunger project.

Jenny Rabinowich, MPH, is Manager and Research Coordinator of the research and advocacy project Witnesses to Hunger at Drexel University School of Public Health. For more information see: http://www.centerforhungerfreecommunities.org.


We would like to thank the women whose stories are described here. We also thank the anonymous reviewers, Amanda Breen and Victoria Egan for their assistance in refining this manuscript.