Published February 2, 2016
TULSA, OKLAHOMA — Keep the commodity cheese away from Fawn White, thanks.
“I hate commod cheese,” she said. “I despise it when I hear people say, ‘Oh, I love that cheese!’ Well buddy, you didn’t grow up on that cheese.”
With American Indian and Alaska Natives more likely to struggle with regular access to food, that cheese, distributed through an assistance program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a regular sight in many Native houses, including White’s childhood home in rural north-central Oklahoma. It has also left a lasting imprint on thousands of palettes and psyches.
Darcy Freedman, an associate professor of applied social sciences at Case Western Reserve University’s Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods, has been studying food security for 15 years. Since the Great Recession in the late 2000s, Freedman has noticed an increase in the number of food insecure households from all backgrounds, even as the economy stabilizes.
“It used to be 10 percent of Americans were food insecure,” Freedman said. “It’s still shocking that in the wealthiest country, that it’s a reality. Children and seniors are hit hard, and those are two populations where food is medicine, as it allows you to provide resiliency for your mental health.”
Hunger and mental health
That proverbial missing medicine leads to higher rates of mental health concerns, not only in childhood, but also among adults who experienced food insecurity during their formative years.
In a 2002 journal article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, a study of both preschool and school-aged children showed that even when taking into account other factors, students who were chronically hungry had higher rates of depression and anxiety.
The study also found a correlation between chronic childhood hunger and higher rates of externalizing behaviors, such as poor self-control.
For some children, that may mean acting out at school, as evidenced by a November 2015 study of kindergarten and first grade students that found children in food insecure households were more likely to have disciplinary problems than their classmates coming from homes with sufficient food.
“We found consistent negative impacts of the transitions on teachers’ reports of children’s externalizing behaviors, self-control, and interpersonal skills and on parents’ reports of children’s overall health status,” Rice University’s Rachel Kimbro and Justin Denny wrote.
White wrestled with self-control as well. However, her struggles were at the dinner table with her siblings and frequently present cousins rather than in the classroom in an effort to avoid going to bed on an empty stomach.
“It was like a race for us,” she said. “I don’t know why, but we needed to eat, and have seconds and eat until everything was gone. We were like locusts.”
That fight to maintain self-control can manifest itself long after food access is more stable.
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