Iowa State researches find relationship between food insecurity and depression

A new study by an Iowa State University professor and student links food insecurity and maternal depression in rural America.

“We wanted to look at the depressive level that mothers in rural areas were experiencing,” said Kim Greder, an associate professor in human development and family studies and ISU Extension and Outreach family life state specialist. “The nugget that can be taken away from this is, ‘Take care of mom. Make sure mom’s mental health is good.’”

Greder is the principal investigator of a study looking at household food insecurity, maternal depression, and child behaviors in rural, low-income families. The study included in-depth interviews and surveys with 371 mothers in rural, isolated areas in 13 states including California, Texas, North Carolina, Iowa, and Louisiana.

The requirements for participating adult mothers included having a low income with at least one child 13 or younger.

Mothers affecting children – Greder’s research shows 42 percent of the families interviewed suffer from food insecurity, according to completion of a U.S. Department of Agriculture household food insecurity module. She said this is directly related to 36 percent of the mothers interviewed suffering from depression, according to the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale.

She said low-income families in rural America often struggle with being isolated. The simple task of going to the grocery store can be difficult.

“Food is a basic need that affects other aspects of your life,” she said.

Greder also looked at how a mother’s depression affects children’s internal and external behavior in the household. She said depression triggered through hardship is often passed on to children.

“A mother’s mental health is critical to how children behave,” Greder said. “It makes sense because you think of nurturing and attachment. When mom stresses and isn’t able to be well, physically or mentally, then her ability to care for her children and attend to their needs is affected.”

Greder relates the children’s behavior back to a household with food insecurity. The children were divided into two age groups: newborns to 5, and 6 to 12.

“If you have children growing up in food insecure households and you pair that with a mother whose mental health is not good, the outlook for those kids is also not good,” she said.

Future development –  Kimberly Doudna, a graduate student in human development and family studies, and Susan Sarver, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, worked with Greder on the study.

Doudna said she researches stressors experienced by rural families, which attracted her to the study. She created research questions and analyzed data.

“This was a fantastic experience to extend my research to include the impact on children,” Doudna said.

Community intervention is needed to reduce food insecurity and maternal depression in rural families, Greder said.

“It may benefit practitioners who work with rural mothers with low incomes to not only be familiar with food and mental health resources, but to also work together across agencies to strengthen partnerships in order to fully serve rural mothers and their families,” she said.

Greder said she hopes to follow the rural families interviewed to see how their behavior changes in years to come.

“The thinking is if nothing changes in the environment to affect the mother’s mental health, then the mother won’t get better,” Greder said.

The Family Nutrition Program, an effort by Human Sciences Extension and Outreach, educates families who are food insecure on how to make the most of their budget. Christine Hradek, a state extension specialist, said the program reaches more than 500 families in Iowa a year.

“[The program] addresses food insecurity by empowering struggling families to make the most of their food dollar,” Hradek said. “We help families learn the skills to manage their grocery budget and purchase the healthiest food possible with their grocery dollar.”

According to a report published by ISU Extension and Outreach, 89 percent of the adults completing the eight-lesson course improved their food resource management.

“The biggest gift of the program is confidence. It really builds mom’s confidence,” Hradek said. “With that confidence, they can make healthier choices, shop smarter, and prepare better meals. That tends to extend into them feeling more confident as people and as parents.”

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