Community-Driven Approaches to Addressing Food Insecurity

Research BriefEarly ChildhoodOct 26 2021

Access to food is a human right,[1] yet in the United States, an estimated 13 million children may experience food insecurity in 2021,[2] which means they lack consistent access to adequate and nutritious food for a healthy, active life.[3] The nation’s history of systemic racism, including discriminatory employment and housing practices, has kept Black families from acquiring equal wealth and access to resources (e.g., grocery stores) compared to their White counterparts.[4] As a result, in 2019, Black households were almost two times more likely to experience food insecurity compared to the national average;[2] and today, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 1 in 4 Black children may be experiencing food insecurity.[2] Given the disproportionate rate of food insecurity within Black communities, improving food security is a necessary priority in addressing barriers to racial equity in the United States.


Food insecurity negatively affects people of all ages, but nutrition disruptions early in life, starting even before birth, can have significant and long-term impacts on children’s learning and development. Child food insecurity is associated with increased risk of anemia, poor overall general health, anxiety and depression, and behavioral challenges in school.[5] While food insecurity directly impacts children’s nutrition, it is also associated with less moderate and vigorous physical activity.[6]

Community supports to reduce food insecurity and improve child health outcomes are especially pivotal in low-income and communities of color hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As children spend a significant amount of time in early care and education (ECE) environments, ECE centers provide an opportunity and critical community support to connect children, staff, and families with local and federal resources to access healthy food and education to promote healthy lifestyles.[7]

This brief highlights the results of Child Trends’ evaluation of the Healthy Food Alliance for Early Education (HFAEE), a program designed to improve nutrition and health practices in ECE centers and the homes of children facing food insecurity in St. Louis, MO. We first provide a description of the program components and approach. Then, we explain the HFAEE evaluation findings, which show that—with individualized TTA—center directors can envision wellness environments and shift wellness cultures at centers, and can reinforce that shift in families’ homes by strengthening the home-to-school connection. Considerations for equitable community work, based on the HFAEE model, are also presented at the end of this brief to guide similar community efforts.