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Released March 9, 2005

STUDY LOOKS AT EFFECTS OF FOOD INSECURITY ON CHILDREN

HATTIESBURG – Children who are insecure about getting regular meals at home suffer emotionally, physically and academically, says a new study from researchers at The University of Southern Mississippi.

Dr. Carol Connell, assistant research professor in the Southern Miss Department of Nutrition and Food Systems, presented a study on children and food in Washington, D.C., last month.

Connell's two-year mission to unveil a link between children and a lack of food placed her center stage at the Food Assistance Research Conference hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. There, she introduced her child food insecurity module that would measure food insecurity and hunger in adolescents.

"Research shows food insecurity and hunger tend to affect children emotionally and academically and increases hospital visits, especially for smaller children," said Connell. Her findings also proved that most children were well aware of their family's food insecurities.

Connell and four other Southern Miss researchers created the module after Dr. Tim Rehner, assistant director of the Southern Miss School of Social Work and head of the Family Network Partnership, sought help in trying to better understand the needs of his students, some of whom complained of an inability to focus due to hunger pains.

Only able to locate a survey for adult food insecurity, Connell felt compelled to produce a tool that would mirror a child's sense of food security. The project was backed by the USDA, which granted $33,000 for the study.

About 40 area children ages 11-16 participated in the three-stage study. "The first stage was asking the children what happens at home when food starts to run out," Connell said. However, Connell admitted fears of embarrassment kept most children quiet. To ensure an accurate report, she quickly adopted different approach.

"We had to do it (the first stage) by asking them, 'Have you ever known your neighbors, friends or some other family to ever run out of food?'" said Connell. The technique worked, as many of the children began to share their own experiences of rationing food. "Some eventually confessed to going to grandma's house for dinner or going to a friend's house for supper," Connell said.

The second stage of the project was dedicated to getting on the children's levels.

After allowing another group of 40 students to review the adult food insecurity module, researchers sought advice from them on how to formulate questions that they could comprehend. Connell then created a child-friendly survey to present to participants of the study.

The final step in creating the module involved a quantitative analysis of a survey of students ages 9-15. When the results poured in, researchers discovered that 20 percent of the nearly 400 students surveyed experienced some level of food insecurity.

The high percentage left Southern Miss research dietician Kristi Lofton very disturbed. "It was very heartbreaking to hear children describe how they could not concentrate in class because they were too busy trying to keep their stomachs from growling," said Lofton, who spearheaded half of the children's interviews. "Some children admitted to overeating at school just in case they had to skip a meal at home."

These findings grabbed the attention of one of the country's premier nutrition journals, the Journal of Nutrition, in which Connell's work was published last October. Soon after, Connell learned the National Center for Health Statistics planned to include five of the nine questions from her survey on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

"We are certainly proud of Dr. Connell," said Dr. Kathy Yadrick, chair of the Southern Miss Department of Nutrition and Food Systems. "Dr. Connell has always been a team player, willing to take on responsibilities over and above her primary research responsibility with the Delta Nutrition Intervention Research Initiative, while continuing to perform at an outstanding level in her research position."

For more information about Connell's work, please contact her at (601) 266-6341.

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April 8, 2005 3:10 PM