To address childhood hunger, government policy should focus on entire neighborhoods rather than individual families, new research shows.
Children living in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates and in those with high foreign-born populations and non-English speakers are more likely to experience hunger, according to the study, published in the Journal of Applied Research on Children.
“Policymakers should be thinking about targeting whole communities, instead of what is done now, which is offering public aid programs for individual families,” says Justin Denney, professor of sociology at Rice University.
“Public aid works on a limited basis, reaching approximately 70 percent of eligible individuals. But unfortunately, the remaining 30 percent are unaccounted for.”
Researchers used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative dataset of more than 20,000 kindergarteners in 1998-1999, to examine individual, family, and neighborhood characteristics of children who are or are not affected by hunger. In the dataset, the children were clustered according to schools and neighborhoods.
Many children facing hunger have foreign-born parents who are fearful of applying for aid, despite their children’s eligibility as citizens of the U.S., or parents ashamed of applying for public aid.
By changing the focus of these policies away from the individual and on to the community, parents might take advantage of community food programs, says co-author Rachel Tolbert Kimbro, professor of sociology.
The authors hope their findings will influence future policies addressing issues of childhood hunger.
“If we have policies targeted at neighborhoods rather than individuals, no one is excluded,” Kimbro says. “Families are critical for childhood development, but communities and neighborhoods have significant impacts as well, as this study clearly demonstrates.”
Kimbro and Denney are co-founders of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Urban Health Program at Rice, which supported the research.