Cyclic Food Availability and Child Wellbeing Among Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Recipients in Baltimore

Associate Name: Rachel Thornton

Funding Source/Period of the Grant: HPC Pilot 02/01/2017 - 02/08/2018


Household food insecurity is defined as inability to provide adequate food to all household members needed to maintain an active lifestyle because of constrained resources. In 2015, nearly 16 million households in the U.S. were food insecure. The majority of these households (59%) had received some form of federal nutrition assistance benefits in the past month. Low-income households, households with children, and racial/ethnic minorities are all at increased risk of food insecurity. Food insecurity has been shown to have direct effects on diet quality, nutrition, feeding patterns, and weight. It also likely produces downstream impacts on child cognition, parenting stress, and family functioning. Despite urgent problems associated with food insecurity, relatively little is known about specific mechanisms (e.g., food consumption patterns among food insecure families) through which it affects short- and long-term outcomes. One possible mechanism derives from evidence suggesting that families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in particular redeem ¾ of their full benefit amount by mid-month. This research suggests cycles of food abundance early in the month followed by periods of food scarcity at the end of the month. We refer to this potential pattern of abundance followed by deprivation as “food cyclicality”. The proposed pilot study represents an important first-step in describing and better understanding the nature of food cyclicality experienced by families receiving SNAP benefits and is a prerequisite for developing a long-term research agenda that elucidates both its causes and consequences. A better understanding of whether food cyclicality is common, whether it is deliberate or not, and how it may be associated with mediators of child well-being among families receiving SNAP benefits is critical to informing future hypothesis-driven research aimed at improving family functioning, child well-being, and child success. The proposed pilot study uses a mixed-methods approach to explore the phenomenon of food cyclicality among families with children ages 4-10-years-old who receive SNAP benefits in Baltimore. It also explores the relationship between food cyclicality and two key mediators of child well-being and success: parenting stress and child cognition. We will conduct two home visits timed to coincide with periods during the month when families’ SNAP benefits are likely to be
depleted and when the full benefit amount is likely available. At each visit, we will assess the home food environment using a standardized and validated inventory, assess parenting stress and food insecurity using validated questionnaires, and assess child cognition using validated and standardized computerized assessments. We will use pilot data from the proposed research to seek funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to further examine and describe the role of food cyclicality in child development and family functioning. Such a program of research is critical for determining how nutrition assistance programs might be optimized to maximize their positive effects and mitigate potential negative effects on the health and wellbeing of children and families.


Photo: "IMG_8391" by Xavier Delaporte is licensed under CC BY 2.0