Understanding the Psychological Distress of Food Insecurity: A Qualitative Study of Children's Experiences and Related Coping Strategies

J Acad Nutr Diet. 2020 Mar;120(3):395-403. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2019.10.012. Epub 2020 Jan 17.


Background: Food insecurity, a condition of inadequate household food availability, affects 15.7% of US households with children. Food insecurity is generally believed to affect the quantity and quality of food consumed. However, an understudied but important aspect of the experience of food insecurity is psychological distress.

Objective: To critically explore the psychological distress associated with children's food insecurity using children's own reports of their experiences.

Design: In-depth qualitative interviews conducted with children to better understand the psychological distress associated with food insecurity.

Participants/setting: Sixty children (aged 7 to 14 years) were recruited from the San Francisco Bay Area. Children were eligible in the case that they spoke English fluently and their parent reported any experience of household food insecurity during the past year.

Results: Children discussed six themes related to the psychological distress associated with food insecurity: worrying about not having enough food, worrying about their parents' well-being, anger and frustration about not having enough food, embarrassment about their family's food situation, strain on the family's dynamics due to food insecurity, and sadness over not having enough food. After describing their experiences, children described strategies they employed to tolerate or cope with food insecurity, including distracting from or using their imagination to cope with food insecurity, increasing tolerance of their family's food situation, and appreciating their parents for providing food and resources.

Conclusions: Food insecurity contributes to children's psychological distress. Given the known effects of chronic stress in childhood, the psychological distress of food insecurity may represent an important mechanism by which food insecurity adversely influences children's growth and development and deserves investigation in future studies.

Keywords: Children; Coping; Food insecurity; Psychological distress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Female
  • Food Supply*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Parents / psychology
  • Poverty / psychology*
  • Psychological Distress*
  • Qualitative Research
  • San Francisco
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*