Now a professor of pediatric medicine at George Washington University, Dr. Kofi Essel uses the analogy of a deadly snake to explain the toxic stress of food insecurity to his students.

He asked his students to imagine the shock of seeing that snake outside of your home, a healthy fear response, but then he described repeatedly seeing the snake and being unable to make it go away.

The healthy and self-preserving fear of the snake becomes permanent and starts wearing on you.

“We all experience stressors,” he explained. “But when it’s unrelenting, it overwhelms the system; it becomes a toxic stress. Food insecurity is a toxic stress that permanently rewires the brains of children.”

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The latest installment of the Food Justice Series held hosted by Share Our Strength —the organization behind the No Kid Hungry campaign and Food & Society at the Aspen Institute — focused on the devastating impacts of food insecurity and mental health.

Doctor Cindy Leung, nutrition epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, shared that this conversation was long overdue, while she described some of the many consequences food insecurity can have on kids.

The non-exhaustive list included, lower psycho-social function, lower cognitive development, hyperactivity, aggression and anxiety and difficulty getting along with peers.

Susana Martinez witnesses all of these consequences in her role as chief strategy officer and national director at the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, D.C. Her organization offers comprehensive services to immigrants and other vulnerable families.

“Food insecurity,” Martinez shared, “is something that will take a little bit of time to expose. The stigma around food insecurity reveals itself in the fact that families don’t want to disclose.”

Martinez shared stories of kids who rejected food because they were embarrassed to say they were hungry and parents who would call feeling offended whenever their kids received free food. She emphasized the importance of looking for behavioral signs in kids and building relationships to meet and understand their needs.

Dr. Essel has encountered the same experience with his patients. He expressed the importance of creating environments in which the stigma doesn’t exist.

“Kids just want to be accepted,” he shared. “One thing we did in D.C. was to offer school breakfast across the board. The idea of allowing all kids to access healthy meals reduces stigma.”

Dr. Leung, Martinez and Dr. Essel wrapped up the conversation discussing practical solutions like the universal breakfast in Washington, DC.

Martinez focused on additional strategies to reduce stigma, addressing food access and changing the conversation around mental health, normalizing the fact that these challenges can affect anybody. She said understanding the cultural background of families was essential to achieving this.

Dr. Essel focused on solutions at the federal level.

“The most important policy by far is SNAP,” he shared, explaining that – according to a USDA report – 90% of families in the U.S. don’t have enough funds to purchase food for their families all month.

The speakers agreed that the pandemic magnified already underlying inequalities that are the root cause of food insecurity and its devastating effects on the mental health of kids.

“The first thing we can do is acknowledge that food insecurity has structural drivers in our communities, like poverty, racism and unequal food distribution,” Leung explained. “Addressing how we can make food more equitable is a good starting point, recognizing that food insecurity correlates with other insecurities.”

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