Study examines why some poor families go hungry while others do not

JANUARY 5, 2004

WORCESTER, Mass. — With millions of Americans still hungry despite declines in poverty and widely available food assistance programs, public health officials seek to better understand why some low-income households experience hunger while others do not. A new study from researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS), to be published in the January 6, 2004 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, has made strides towards answering this question.

The study, which analyzed survey data from 354 low-income, housed and homeless Worcester, Massachusetts women with at least one child living with them, found that households of women who are experiencing resource constraints (e.g., housing problems, older and more children) or who were sexually molested as children are more likely to be hungry than other women and children in low-income, female-headed households. Conversely, the study found that households of mothers who are older, in good physical health, or receiving child support assistance or support from siblings, are less likely to suffer from hunger.

“Hunger has been shown in numerous studies to be strongly associated with poverty.  But not all low-income households experience hunger.  To date few studies have focused on the differences among very poor households, and we are unaware of any studies that have examined the relative contribution of maternal and health factors associated with household risk of hunger,” explained principal investigator Linda Weinreb, MD, professor and vice chair of family medicine & community health. Dr. Weinreb and co-investigator Cheryl Wehler, a hunger expert who did extensive work developing widely-accepted measures of food insecurity and hunger prior to becoming a medical student at UMMS, examined how multiple social, economic and maternal risk and protective factors interact to either cause or prevent hunger.

Over 90 factors spanning a range of potential immediate to long-term influences on hunger were examined in the study. Risk factors analyzed in the study included maternal and family variables such as mental and physical health, childhood and adulthood family violence, housing problems, family size, and residential instability. Protective factors included housing subsidies, emergency food program use and participation in publicly funded programs. The authors identified factors distinguishing not only hungry from non-hungry families, but also among the hungry, distinguished risk for child from adult hunger.

The consequences of childhood victimization may lead to long-lasting physical and mental health problems that may negatively affect mothers’ abilities to feed themselves and their children, Weinreb and Wehler speculate. “Even for mothers in good health, efficient use of limited resources to meet basic needs requires a deliberate, sustained process of planning and focus. For women suffering emotional and physical effects of victimization, these tasks may be overwhelming,” noted Wehler.

“Eliminating hunger may require broader interventions than food programs alone. Such interventions would address mothers’ past and current traumatic life episodes and their potential impact on managing day-to-day needs such as providing sufficient food in the context of severely limited resources,” concluded Wehler and Weinreb.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School is one of the fastest growing academic health centers in the country and has built a reputation as a world-class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research. The Medical School attracts more than $151 million in extramural research funding annually, 80 percent of which comes from federal funding sources. Research dollars enable UMMS scientists to explore human disease from the molecular level to large-scale clinical trials. Basic and clinical research leads to new approaches for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease. Visit for additional information.

Contact: Alison Duffy or Michael Cohen, Public Affairs  508-856-2000