One out of seven Italian children live in a situation of food insecurity, i.e. families cannot always afford a healthy and balanced diet. Often the purchase criterion is the price of the product, resulting in diets that are not very varied and based on food of inadequate quality. Children in the South, with large families, poorly educated and young parents with a low income are more at risk. In addition, it is estimated that one in five children in the family lives in fear of not having enough money to buy food until the end of the month. In half of these cases, the families did not really have sufficient financial resources to buy food.
These are the main data emerging from a study conducted by the research group of the Department of Health Science and Public Health of Università Cattolica, under the guidance of Professor Walter Ricciardi, Professor of General and Applied Hygiene, and Professor Maria Luisa Di Pietro, Professor of Legal Medicine, and the scientific coordination of Professor Chiara de Waure, Professor of Hygiene at the Università degli Studi di Perugia, and Dr. Drieda Zace, PhD candidate in Basic Biomedical Sciences and Public Health at Università Cattolica, also thanks to the collaboration of some paediatricians of free choice of the Associazione Culturale Pediatri (Cultural Association of Paediatricians).
The study was published in the international scientific journal Food Security.
«And the data could even be underestimated, since the study - unique in our country, taking into account the economic condition, the access to food and the state of health of Italian children - has not been extended to the disadvantaged suburbs where the socio-economic problems of families are certainly greater. Moreover, since the experts used the Household Food Security Index, which analyses the economic situation of families and the effects on the purchase of food in a very “brutal” way, some of the participants may have “sweetened” their situation out of embarrassment. The study repeats data for the period 2017-2018, which means that the situation could have worsened considering the pandemic situation of Covid-19 and the economic crisis that the country is going through», emphasizes Professor Di Pietro.
«There is also the risk - continues Di Pietro - that with the closure of schools during the lockdown and therefore with the lack of access to school canteens, which in any case guarantee children a complete and balanced meal, food insecurity for young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, may have increased».
Food insecurity is a serious public health problem even in developed countries. Food Security is achieved when all people, at all times in their lives, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their nutritional needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Food insecurity is a worrying phenomenon for the whole population, particularly children, because of the negative effects on their health. In many European countries, including Italy, there is little or no epidemiological evidence of food insecurity and its correlation with the damage to children’s current and future health. In Italy, children live in conditions of inequality from the earliest years of life. Socio-economic inequalities are also a consequence of the fact that social spending for children is among the lowest in Europe, with significant differences between regions in access to services for children and their families. Economic poverty is associated with educational and cultural poverty and affects so-called “health determinants” which are also associated with food insecurity.
This study, which estimated the prevalence of Italian children living in a situation of food insecurity, the socio-economic factors associated with it and the impact on the health status of the children, was concluded in 2019 and examined 6 Italian macro-areas: Lombardy (Milan), Lazio (Rome), Marche (Jesi), Campania (Caserta), Apulia (Brindisi, Lecce), Sicily (Palermo). Only children between 1 and 11 years of age, born in Italy, with parents of Italian nationality, regularly followed by a paediatrician of free choice were included. The study was based on two questionnaires, one addressed to the parent to collect information on the socio-demographic and economic situation, the health of the child and the food safety index of the families; the other questionnaire was addressed to the paediatrician of free choice requesting data such as weight, height, head circumference, and information on the physical, psychomotor, relational and dental health of the child and on the presence of difficulties at school and during physical activity.
Out of a sample of 573 children, it was found that 1 in 7 children live in a food insecure situation. The most critical macro areas were Campania (Caserta) and, in decreasing order, Lazio (Rome) and Sicily (Palermo). Living in Southern Italy, in large families, with low income, young parents and low level of education were the most frequent predictors of food insecurity.
«The study showed that a quarter of the children involved live in families that cannot always afford to eat nutritionally balanced meals. In a third of the cases, families try to make up for the lack of money by buying cheap, unvaried food. This means that children do not have all the nutrients they need for growth» - said Professor Maria Luisa Di Pietro. And the consequences to the detriment of children are already visible: vision problems, relationship problems, psychomotor difficulties, dental and physical problems and increased school difficulties are more frequent among children who do not eat well.
«The study probably highlights only the tip of an iceberg. The data obtained here could be an underestimation of the real situation, also because parents often tend to hide the truth of the family’s condition out of shame. Moreover, the study has not involved notoriously poor areas of cities where food insecurity is undoubtedly more widespread», said Professor Di Pietro.
This is a problem that requires a great deal of attention, starting with the use of comprehensive screening on food insecurity with annual monitoring and the planning of interventions aimed at filling - if any - children’s nutritional deficiencies and adequate economic policies to support families, concludes the expert. «In particular, to counteract this situation, it is necessary to intervene with appropriate social strategies aimed either at reducing the poverty of families or at mitigating the negative effects of reduced or low family income on children through specific programmes and interventions to integrate deficiencies with the help of paediatricians of free choice and schools. These interventions are particularly urgent considering the difficult economic situation that the country is experiencing due to the Covid-19 pandemic», said Professor Di Pietro.