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Zhang Leads National Project Examining Factors Related to Childhood Hunger

Harry Zhang

Q. Harry Zhang, an Old Dominion University health economist, will lead a cooperative project with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that will probe the reasons why hunger is still a fear for many children in America.

The three-year project, "Local Economic Conditions, Food Assistance and Food Insecurity Among Households with Children," will get a grant and other contributions worth more than $200,000 from the USDA's Economic Research Service. Collateral support from ODU worth $134,000 has been pledged to the work.

Collaborating with Zhang will be Chris Ruhm, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Jefferson-Pilot Excellence Professor of Economics at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and Margaret Andrews, a USDA economist. At ODU, Zhang has the appointment of assistant professor of community and environmental health in the College of Health Sciences.

"We hypothesize that local economic conditions are significant components of food insecurity infrastructure at county and neighborhood levels," Zhang said. "Understanding the contributions of local economic conditions to household food security will lead to innovative ways to target food assistance and allocate other programmatic resources to reduce household food insecurity."

He believes the research findings will help the USDA identify the specific economic conditions that should trigger special interventions aimed at feeding hungry children.

Household food security, according to Zhang, means that each member of the household feels confident about access at all times to sufficient, safe food to maintain a healthy and active life. Food insecurity is measured by a standard USDA survey that asks questions such as, "In the last 12 months did you or other adults in your household ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food?" Or, "'We relied on only a few kinds of low-cost food to feed our children because we were running out of money to buy food.' Was that often, sometimes or never true for you in the last 12 months? "

Zhang said the most recent figures available show that the USDA spent $55 billion on multiple food assistance programs in 2007, yet 6.2 million households with children were sometimes food-insecure during that year.

The problem is serious enough to have caused the federal government, in collaboration with numerous organizations, to set a goal targeting 2015 as the year in which child hunger will be eliminated in the United States.

Zhang and his collaborators will analyze data from a variety of sources. The national Early Childhood Longitudinal Study that tracked pupils from the kindergarten class of 1998-99 until 2007, for example, offers the researchers a wealth of information about factors ranging from participation in the National School Lunch Program to instances in which a pupil's family reported food insecurity. Also to be considered are census, tax and cost-of-living data, employment and housing-cost statistics, food assistance program data and even the results of business studies that can reveal whether people in a particular neighborhood or county have access to big supermarkets where food is cheaper or to fast-food restaurants. Surveys of emergency food assistance program availability - church soup kitchens, food banks, etc. - will be factored in, as well.

The ODU researcher said that most studies related to food insecurity have been national in scope, but that he believes the USDA could better address food insecurity with responses from the local level. The data analysis he will undertake will look at every zip code area of the country, he said. He hopes to provide a checklist of warning signs that will indicate when a community is likely to need interventions to keep children well fed.

Zhang's previous research includes a project funded by the National Institutes of Health that is helping to determine whether low prices for soft drinks and cookies versus higher prices for healthier foods such as fresh tomatoes and avocados contribute to obesity among America's poor.

This article was posted on: September 14, 2010

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