Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Food for the Utah Food Bank is donated at Wal-Mart in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012. Hunger Action Month in Utah culminated with this statewide food drive at Wal-Mart locations throughout the state.
A bag of groceries" or a backpack filled with food stuffs "can literally prevent homelessness. —Pamela Atkinson

More than 30 percent of single-parent households experienced food insecurity in the last 12 months, meaning that at some point during the year they did not have enough money to pay for food, according to a new study from the Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index.

By contrast, only 19 percent of two-parent households reported similar difficulty. This data comes from more than 36,000 interviews conducted with adults ages 18-50 in the first six months of this year.

Gallup also looked at food insecurity by number of children in the home and parental age. Families with three or more children were significantly more likely than those with two or fewer children to report difficulty affording food. While 20 percent of households with two or fewer children couldn't afford food in the last 12 months, 30 percent of families with four or more children reported episodes of food insecurity.

These findings highlight how pervasive hunger is in American society, especially for families with children, according to Gallup. While media and policymakers tend to focus on children when the topic of hunger comes up, a growing body of research suggests devastating consequences of food insecurity on parents.

"We have free breakfast and free lunch programs for school-aged children," said Pamela Atkinson, a prominent Salt Lake City-based community advocate and member of the Deseret News editorial board, "but if there isn't milk and cereal for the kids to eat before school, there certainly isn't anything for the parents to eat before they leave for work."

The hungry brain

A 2008 study by the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University in Starkville showed that food insecurity is positively correlated with depression. Women — particularly single women — who didn't have enough food to feed their families were more likely to be depressed compared with their peers who had enough food. The relationship was robust: The more food insecure a person was, they more depressed they reported being, according to researchers. Even after controlling for various factors that may impact food security (age, educational attainment, race, employment status, income level) the association between food insecurity and emotional well-being was statistically significant.

A depressive state brought on by not having enough food or going hungry negatively impacts the way parents interact with their kids, according to a research brief from Children's HealthWatch, a Boston-based pediatric health care organization. Depressed moms, their research suggests, are less likely to show affection, read stories, play games and offer other forms of interaction critical to a young child's developing brain.

The hungry body

Mississippi State researchers also found a link between food security and physical health. Parents — and particularly single mothers — in food-insecure households were more likely to have poor health compared to parents in food-secure households. They found that food security is a stronger predictor of health status than both employment status and educational attainment.

A parent's health issues can also negatively impact a child's well-being. A 10-year study of children with parents in poor health suggests that having a sick parent can jeopardize a child's educational, social and emotional experiences. The study, by Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, also found that children of parents in poor health are more likely to be in poor health themselves and more likely to report depressive symptoms.

Illness can also begin a downward economic spiral for many low-income families, according to Atkinson: "If they don't work, they don't get paid. If they take time off to recuperate they may not have jobs to come back to."

Economic stability for these families depends on having "healthy parents who can work jobs and take care of their kids," Atkinson said. She recalls countless times being told by children who participate in school lunch programs that their mothers and fathers don't eat with them because there isn't enough to eat.

Let the parents eat

While hungry American children are given well-balanced snacks and meals through various outreach programs, their parents are left to fend for themselves. Some go to food pantries, but others can't even access these social safety nets for lack of transportation, shame or, in some cases, concern about immigration status.

While the school lunch policy undoubtedly helps millions of children, going a little further to ensure that parents are eating, too, could dramatically improve social, emotional and physical outcomes for children, according to Atkinson. Some communities are addressing the hunger of parents and children by filling children's school backpacks with food staples like pasta and beans every Friday afternoon before they go home for the weekend. "They try to put enough in there that the parents will also have something to eat," she said.

And while it may not be a comprehensive solution, Atkinson says the power of a bag or backpack of groceries mustn't be underestimated.

"A bag of groceries" or a backpack filled with food stuffs "can literally prevent homelessness," she said. For some families, a box of spaghetti and a can of tomato sauce means they don't have to dip into their rent money just to eat. It means the aren't going to get behind on their rent, they aren't going to be evicted, Atkinson said.

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