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Study reveals access to food and water is “decreasing” for US children

Posted: 10 June 2024 | | No comments yet

Researchers have found that secure access to food and water is decreasing for US children, and highlight the problem is “more severe for children who are Black or Hispanic”.

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A new study carried out by researchers at Penn State University secure access to food and water is decreasing for children in the US.

Between 2005 and 2020, the number of children facing simultaneous water and food insecurity in the US more than doubled. The study also found that Black and Hispanic children were “several times more likely than white children to experience food and water insecurity at the same time”.

The research was carried out by Asher Rosinger, Associate Professor of Biobehavioral Health and Anthropology at Penn State, as well as Sera Young, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University.

The study itself was published in Nature Water, and includes research that examined water insecurity, food insecurity and their simultaneous occurrence among children in the US.

To carry out the study,  the academics analysed data from 18,252 children using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a nationally representative assessment of health and nutrition conducted annually since 1999 and sporadically since the 1960s.

New Food has frequently reported on the impact of food insecurity across the globe however the recent study shines a spotlight on water insecurity, something the researchers share has been linked to problems with mental health, physical health, nutrition and economic well-being. Meanwhile, food insecurity has been associated with mental health issues, diabetes, poor nutrition, obesity, cardiovascular disease and premature death.

The study unearthed that, in 2005-06, 4.6 percent of all children in the US experienced both water and food insecurity. Then, by the 2017-2020 survey cycle, the researchers found that the percentage of children nationwide who faced both problems rose to 10.3 percent.

Rosinger points out that, over the course of the 20th century, rates of both food insecurity and water insecurity improved overall, however during the period of this study, the researchers found a steady, gradual increase in household food insecurity.

In fact, water insecurity was also found to fluctuate between 2005 and 2013. Then, in 2013, a “water crisis” occurred in Flint, Michigan, with the odds of water insecurity between 2013 and 2020, the odds of water insecurity rising by 88 percent.

According to the researchers, water and food problems are “inherently connected,” which has shared in the authors’ previous work which demonstrated the connection between water and food insecurity in adults.

“Avoiding tap water is associated with other problems that can negatively affect food and water intake. People who avoid tap water are less likely to cook nutritious food for their children because they lack a trusted water source in their kitchen taps. People who avoid tap water also consume higher levels of sugary beverages. Additionally, they may have less money for nutritious food because they are purchasing bottled water, which is far more expensive,” said Rosinger.

“Nearly one in 10 children were experiencing household food insecurity and avoiding their tap water by 2020, and we know that the COVID-19 pandemic only made food insecurity more pervasive,” continued Rosinger.

“That means millions of children in this country are facing potential negative consequences for their mental health, physical health and economic futures.”

A key part of the study looked into “large racial disparities” between children exposed to food and water insecurity in the US. The researchers found that, compared to the national average, the numbers among Hispanic children are “much higher”, with results showed that Black children were 3.5 times more likely than white children to experience simultaneous food and water insecurity.

Meanwhile, Hispanic children, were over seven times more likely than white children to experience simultaneous food and water insecurity.

“Though availability of safe, reliable water access is a critical part of water security, trust of tap water is also a factor, both for children and their parents,” shared the researchers, before outlining that when parents do not trust the water, they are “less likely” to give it to their children for fear it will make them sick.

“Don’t sleepwalk into food insecurity” expert warns

“Most people are aware that Flint, Michigan, experienced a crisis related to unsafe tap water, and Flint is a majority Black community. Since then, there have been other highly visible problems with water systems in majority-minority communities like Newark in New Jersey and Jackson in Mississippi. When you see on the news that people who look like you are getting sick from tap water, it can amplify mistrust. Additionally, minoritised populations often have poorer access to services, especially people who live in low-income communities,” continued Rosinger.

“At all income levels except the very lowest, children were more likely to experience food insecurity when they did not drink tap water. We saw the biggest effect for children in low income and lower-middle income households, but even in households that earned incomes several times the national poverty level, children were more likely to face food insecurity if they did not drink tap water.” 

Overall, the authors of the study claimed that, worldwide, water insecurity is expected to increase in the coming years as a result of pressure from climate change, population growth and aging infrastructure.

“We cannot manage what we cannot measure. The first step is to understand the extent of the problem. Tap water avoidance is a great proxy of water insecurity, but it is abundantly clear that we need a better understanding of who is experiencing hardships and the extent of those difficulties,” shared Young.

Looking to the future, the researchers have agreed that despite the lack of a direct measure of water insecurity in the US, “much can be done right now to address water and food security in the nation”.

The academics have outlined that government programmes such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), could be expanded.

“Right now, many people in the US equate the existence of water infrastructure with being water secure. But piped water can be unaffordable, contaminated, dried up or otherwise not available. And let us not forget that there are millions of people in the US living without piped water,” noted Young.

Going further, the team highlighted that they believe policy changes “could reverse the trend of growing water insecurity” and pointed out that other researchers have found that providing water filters to Hispanic families reduces distrust of tap water, resulting in increased tap water consumption and reduced reliance on bottled water.

What’s more, the researchers also advocated for in-home water testing to assess water safety, with Rosinger sharing: “While there are a couple million people without safe, reliable drinking water, 99% of US households have access to water through a pipe in their home, and the vast majority of that water is clean and drinkable,”

“To rebuild trust in this system, we should provide testing to show that water is safe. We should replace lead service lines and provide filters where water is not safe. These actions will help ensure that our nation’s children have access to the clean water they need to grow and thrive and that their families do not suffer extra financial and mental stress because of uncertain water quality.”

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