Hunger Pangs and Little Brains: The Hidden Menace of Childhood Food Insecurity

Food may be the most basic of basic needs, but hunger is a real–and devastating–problem for children throughout the region.

Monday morning. Breakfast time at Dover Children’s Center in Dover, NH.

It’s pancake day.

The child takes his seat and digs in. He attacks the pancakes. One after the other, ferociously devoured. When the pancakes run out, fruit is next. That too disappears. Wolfed down.

Later the teachers learn that his dinner last night was pizza bites—split between three siblings. Mom skipped dinner again.

The boy is three years old.


According to, 13.1 million children lived in food-insecure households in 2015. In Massachusetts, 745,740 people are food insecure; in New Hampshire the number is 139,720.

This is especially disruptive for children. Grappling with that gnawing sensation in the pits of their stomach can have devastating effects on their school lives.

“Clearly, poor nutrition has immediate and long-term impact on children,” says Amy Pessia, Executive Director at Merrimack Valley Food Bank. “These effects range from poor dental health to cognitive and developmental delays.”

The Food Bank targets these issues through its Operation Nourish initiative, which serves 900 students from Lowell throughout the school year. Last year, the Food Bank provided over 80,000 pounds of food to the community. The Merrimack Valley Food Bank is a recipient of donations from United Way’s Family Fund.

“Many times hunger and a need for food is a source of embarrassment for families and children,” said Kristin Kirby, Social Worker at Greenhalge School in Lowell, which receives food from the Merrimack Valley Food Bank. “Children routinely tell staff that the food they receive helps them to be able to study after school when they are hungry and helps their parents so they don’t have to worry where they will get food for the weekend.”

THE effects of hunger on circle time

For young children, the effects of hunger are even more insidious. Melissa Fischetto, the Executive Director of Dover Children’s Center, sees the fallout from poor nutrition first-hand.

“Food insecurity is one of the first things we go to when we see behavior problems,” she says. “Hungry children are often lethargic and unable to concentrate. You can tell when a family is struggling when the kids are coming in and they’re very hungry.”

For United Way partner organizations like Dover Children’s Center, where nearly 80% of the children served are from low-income families, hunger is a destabilizing force. Families in need will often trim their food budgets when dollars are in such short supply.

“The one place where families can cut from their budget is food,” she says. “They’re just trying to make ends meet.”

Which is why United Way prioritizes basic needs, investing in organizations dedicated to supporting families in crisis and operating campaigns like The Family Fund, which provides needed funding for food, fuel and housing.

Because the only thing a preschooler should be hungry for is more time to learn and play.