A look at food insecurity, malnutrition in the United States

By Roger Thurow

Here is one thing we can all agree on: Every child deserves a chance to reach his or her full potential.

This is the most widely shared human aspiration: the hope for every child who comes into this world to develop the good health, strength of body and intellectual capacity to achieve all that is possible. It is at the top of the wish list for mothers, fathers and grandparents everywhere, and matters even to those without any children of their own. For who knows what any child might one day contribute to our common good — an inspiring poem, a new invention, a cure discovered? A lost chance at greatness for one child is a lost chance for us all.

How, then, can we tolerate the sad, tragic reality that one in every four children under age 5 in our world today is stunted, either physically, mentally or both?

The clinical definition of stunting is “being too small for age.” But that doesn’t come close to capturing its impact. Stunting is a life sentence of underachievement and underperformance. And that life sentence is usually rendered by the time a child is 2, when the brain is developing most expansively and rapidly and the foundations for the future ability to learn, earn and ward off chronic disease are established. Any prolonged bout of malnutrition during a child’s first 1,000 days — the crucial period from the time a mother becomes pregnant to the second birthday of her child — can lead to stunting.

This isn’t just a problem “over there” somewhere — in India, Africa, Central America. Childhood malnutrition is also a major issue in the United States. While malnutrition in America may not so much manifest in physical stunting, it is exacting a heavy a toll on society. It is seen in the rising rates of obesity in recent decades, leading to increases in diabetes and other chronic health problems.

A Global Nutrition Report, compiled by international researchers, highlighted this American paradox: While two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, approximately 15 percent of households are food insecure, which means that, at some point in the year, they are uncertain they can afford the next meal. One in every five children belongs to a family dependent on food stamps; for them, meals frequently consist of the cheapest food available, which usually means the least nutritious.

A report last year by the 1,000 Days organization, Washington, D.C., unveiled an alarming portrait of the nutritional status of America’s mothers and children. Among its findings: Half of women in the United States are overweight or obese when they enter pregnancy, and nearly half gain more weight during pregnancy than is recommended; one in four toddlers isn’t getting enough iron in the diet, missing a crucial brain-building nutrient; and, approximately 10 percent of children under age 2 already exhibit signs of overweight or obesity. In 2014, hunger and food insecurity increased health expenditures in the United States by at least $160 billion, according to a study commissioned by Bread for the World Institute. No country in the world — no matter how rich or mighty — is immune to the insidious impact of malnutrition.

The costs of poor nutrition extend beyond economics. Mission: Readiness, an organization of retired top military officers, published a report warning that childhood malnutrition is a looming threat to national defense. Titled “Too Fat to Fight,” the report claims that more than 70 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds in America couldn’t serve in the military because they are too overweight, too poorly educated or have a serious criminal record. The report indicates that poor nutrition in the 1,000 days influenced some of the problems, particularly weight and learning issues.

“Investing early in the upcoming generation is critical to securing our nation’s future,” the officers said.

Chicago, the first big city to be mapped for food deserts, has been on the front lines of this fight against malnutrition. The mapping showed that several hundred thousand people were living in areas with a scarcity of fresh food options and generally higher prices for fruits, vegetables and meats, even when available. This phenomenon often results in unhealthy diets packed with calories rather than nutrients. Subsequent studies found that approximately 15 percent of Chicago’s children are already obese at ages 2 to 5.

These findings sparked a proliferation of urban agriculture initiatives in Chicago — and across the country — to break up food deserts. One sprouted in a most unusual place on Chicago’s North Side: The former basketball courts of the old Cabrini Green housing project had become the Chicago Lights Urban Farm, a community outreach of the nearby Fourth Presbyterian Church.

Where kids once played hoops day and night, nurturing ambitions of becoming professional basketball players, children now rooted around in the dirt that covered the old courts, nurturing kale, carrots, onions and squash and learning how to grow up healthy. Cornstalks reached for the sky in the shadow of Chicago’s iconic skyscrapers. Hoop dreams had given way to hoop houses — miniature greenhouses for year-round vegetables.

The church initiative introduced green space to an asphalt maze, creating an oasis of good nutrition. Neighbors filled baskets with vegetables; children flocked to nutrition camps, rather than basketball camps; curious adults wandered over for cooking classes. The goal was to change nutritional and dietary behaviors. When one child in the summer farm camp celebrated his seventh birthday, he asked not for cake, but for kale. Chicago Lights named that program “Children Achieving Maximum Potential.” It was a triumphant moment in achieving our common wish for all children.


Roger Thurow is senior fellow, global food and agriculture, at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Adapted from the book “The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children — And the World” (PublicAffairs, 2016).

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.