Anna Markowitz: Effects of Food Insecurity on Childhood Development

New UCLA faculty member encourages public action to save SNAP benefits for children and families.

The upcoming holiday season begins with Thanksgiving, a day of feasting and plenty – but not for all.

Anna Markowitz, an assistant professor in UCLA’s Department of Education, has co-written a blog post for Psychology Today, based on her research around food insecurity – which at last count, affects 12 million children across the United States – and its damaging effects on early childhood development, cognitive skills, and academic and life outcomes.

Markowitz joined the faculty of the division of Human Development & Psychology this fall. She shares her expertise in how policies shape human development, particularly those that affect children, their families, and their educators and caregivers.

Professor Markowitz’s recent work on early childhood education has been funded by the American Educational Research Association and the Keck Foundation. She earned her PhD in Psychology, Human Development and Public Policy and her master’s degree in Public Policy at Georgetown University; a master of arts degree in Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology at Boston College; and her undergraduate degree in psychology with a minor in creative writing at Gettysburg College.

Recent co-written articles include “Examining the validity of a widely-used school readiness assessments in early childhood: Implications for teacher practice” for Early Childhood Research Quarterly, and “Identifying pathways between food insecurity and family wellbeing among households with young children” for the Journal of Pediatrics.

Ampersand had the opportunity to speak with Professor Markowitz on her research and the overall effects of food insecurity upon not only children but their parents, families, teachers, and caregivers.

Ampersand: What piqued your interest about food insecurity and its links to childhood development and academic performance?

Anna Markowitz: Everybody cares about poverty but sometimes, that word is too big to understand. This idea of food insecurity captivated me because it was such a clear way to understand what being poor can mean.

A colleague at Georgetown, Anna Johnson, and I started looking into it and realized there wasn’t a lot of research that looked at the relationship between food insecurity and outcomes for very young children. We’re developmental psychologists, and given what we know about the importance of the first five years for brain development and for supporting children’s foundational skills, we thought that not understanding what early food insecurity might do to children was a major problem.

We had some nationally-representative data on our hands, so we started digging around and in our first paper, we linked household food insecurity to children’s academic and socio-emotional school readiness. And from there, we started to think about the mechanisms that link food insecurity among very young children to their later outcomes.

If you have young children, you probably protect them from being hungry – there is data to suggest that this is true. When parents have little kids, they’re feeding those kiddos before they feed themselves. And so, we wanted to look into mechanisms and figure out how food insecurity was still affecting young children, which led to our subsequent work, which is on the relationship between food insecurity and parents’ health and wellbeing, and how that trickles down to children.

&: What is the definition of food insecurity?

Markowitz: We use what the USDA uses for comparability across research. It’s a lack of access to both the quantity and quality of food needed to fuel a healthy lifestyle. Even if you have enough to eat, it might be that your body isn’t getting the nutrients that you need to thrive. In very young children, we worry about this when we think of brain development and the incredible work that those little brains are doing, and the fact that they need supports to do that.

Protein malnutrition, iron deficiency anemia – these are the things you would worry about. The food insecurity scale asks parents, ‘Have you ever had to skip meals?’, ‘Have you ever put food on the table that was less healthy than you wanted it to be?’ As a country, we shouldn’t be satisfied if everybody is full on white bread all the time – that’s not going to give us protein and the other nutrients. It’s not just about, ‘Can I not feel hungry?’ It’s about giving myself the food that is going to give me the energy to perform and do well.

&: Do you feel that in impoverished areas that food deserts – the dearth of healthy markets and restaurants – is a form of institutionalized discrimination?

Markowitz: I think it definitely is. Or at the very least, food insecurity can be the result of, or exacerbated by policies or choices we make without attention to what it would do to the food security of children and families. I haven’t done a ton of work on food deserts, but there are a lot of people who’ve done an excellent job mapping where you are likely to get fresh fruits and vegetables. In the United States, we prioritize free markets and we think about supply and demand. If people aren’t [perceived as willing or able to] pay for fresh foods, then we’re not going to bring them to those areas. That creates a negative cycle where people aren’t purchasing these foods because they’re not there.

A lot of farmer’s markets take food stamps now to try and give access to folks but you have to be in a place where you can get to a farmer’s market and that is dicey. When I was in Washington D.C., I lived in Georgetown and it was difficult by design to access Georgetown from other parts of the city. Maybe they have a lovely farmer’s market but you’re not getting a lot of people there that don’t live super locally.

There is some incredible work done by food banks in the United States where they think hard about getting food to areas that have less access. But even the rules around food banks sometimes inadvertently work against families. You’re only allowed to receive USDA food from a food bank once a month, so you’re not going to be choosing a banana that isn’t going to be edible in a week. You’re getting canned goods. We’re fortunate to be living in a time where you can get fruits and vegetables that way, but you’re really not getting the freshest stuff.

I used to work in a USDA food bank in Charlottesville. It wasn’t that you just couldn’t go to that one again – there were other USDA food banks in town. You were only supposed to go to one of them. Many food pantries offer donated goods to folks that come back more than once a month, but you need to be in a position to have that privately-provided food.

&: How have the numbers of children and families with food insecurity increased or decreased since you began this work?

Markowitz: The good news is it’s going down, albeit slowly. There was a huge spike during the [2009] recession, which is not surprising. We’ve been on a decrease since then, and this year is the first year that we’ve pulled even with pre-recession levels of food insecurity.

I think it’s a lot to celebrate any time we’re doing better with these indicators but we still have a long way to go. We’re still looking at something like 12 million children. That’s 12 million too many.

&: Are there regions or areas where food insecurity is more prevalent?

Markowitz: It’s going to be tightly linked to places where poverty is more prevalent. The nature of our work has really been about the developmental processes and in our next steps we are going to be thinking along the lines of policy solutions. There, I think, we’ll start thinking more about regions of the country.

When you think about access to food, low-income rural regions are where it’s going to be tougher because there isn’t lots of support. Even what I said about USDA food banks – that’s only about USDA food banks, [not a] privately-run food bank or soup kitchen. It’s a little bit easier [to access food] in areas that are more densely populated.

&: How does food insecurity affect the adults in children’s lives – their parents, teachers, and other caregivers?

Markowitz: My other area of focus is early childhood education. A thru-line through both of these [areas] is that kids develop mostly by interacting with other people around them. The adults, especially, are such a driving force of how they learn and grow – and policies around food supports and food insecurities are going to be affecting those adults pretty heavily. So, that’s why we think about parents, but it’s also [affecting] the early childhood workforce.

Sixty percent of early educators are receiving some kind of public support – food stamps is one of those. We’ve been doing a study looking at the early education workforce in a southern state and how we can help that workforce improve the quality of their interactions with kids and improve their own wellbeing.

In our data, about 50 percent of our teachers responded affirmatively to questions about food insecurity. Some of our work and mechanisms have shown that food insecurity is linked to caregiver depression, stress, factors that are likely to influence the frequency with which they interact with children.

For children in low-income areas, they’re at home, potentially with a food-insecure caregiver. Then, they go to childcare… with a food-insecure caregiver. When are they going to interact with an adult who doesn’t have lots of cares and worries, who can just really focus on them?

&: How does food insecurity affect children’s academic performance?

Markowitz: These are skills at kindergarten entry, so [our research subjects] are pretty young. In our data, we showed increases in hyperactivity and conduct problems, and decreases in this cluster of skills that developmentalists refer to as approaches to learning, such as how you tackle a problem, how persistent you are, or that engaging spark that you have in a classroom.

Other [researchers] have looked at depression and other mental health issues in older kids, as well as academic performance, and they have seen that food insecurity is linked.

&: How are you preparing your students to address the issues surrounding poverty and food insecurity in their classrooms?

Markowitz: When we think about preparing future teachers, we need to prepare them for the classrooms they’re are going to be in. Given what’s happening, these are classrooms where kids are dealing with major challenges because of poverty and food insecurity.

Right now, I’m teaching a class [for undergraduate students] and some are interested in teaching. I think it’s making them aware that these contextual challenges are going to leak into the classroom. Seeing your students as full people with full-scale problems and realizing when you observe their behavior, there are challenges to think about– not that ‘This is a problem kid,’ but, ‘How can I help?’

Future educators are going to have to really be creative with this and think how to leverage resources… drawing on the strengths of the communities that they’re in, to creatively address these issues, and I think, to become advocates for the challenges that are affecting their students. It’s really important for teachers to understand where their students are coming from so they can also help lift up their voices.

The five-year-olds in my study – they’re not able to vote, they’re not as able to demand what they need. But as educators, that might be something that becomes a little more of our job.

Visit this link to read, “Food for Thought: Preserving SNAP for Families in Need” by Professor Markowitz, UCLA Professor of Education Rashmita Mistry, Lindsey Nenadal, assistant professor of child development, CSU Chico; Kristina Brittenham, J.D.; Taylor Hazelbaker, M.A.; and Katherine Griffin, Ph.D.