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Food Hardship and Early Childhood Nutrition

Good nutrition in early childhood is essential for brain development, growth, and the establishment of healthy eating behaviours. Until now, food hardship (ie, any type of food deprivation) and its relationship with nutrition of children under five has not been broadly investigated in Aotearoa New Zealand. In this study, data from the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study was analysed to explore food hardship as experienced by under five-year olds.

Researchers investigated three types of food hardship: being forced to buy cheaper food to pay for other things; having to use special food grants or food bank, and going without fresh fruit and vegetables to pay for other things. Mothers in the study were interviewed about food hardships when their child was nine months old (in 2010/11) and when they were four and a half years old (2013/14).


  • The research found that food hardships were prevalent among families of infants and pre-schoolers.
  • All three food hardships were more common in the first year of life compared to the preschool years.
  • Ethnic inequities in food hardship were evident from infancy, and especially marked for infants experiencing all three forms of food hardship:
    • One in four Māori infants and almost one in three Pacific infants lived in households that reported use of a special food grant or food bank in the previous year compared to one in fifteen Pakeha infants.
    • While only two percent of Pakeha infants experienced all three food hardships at age nine months, one in six Pacific infants (15.5 percent) and one in eleven Māori (9.1 percent) experienced these.
  • All measures of food hardship in the study were separately associated with poorer nutrition in children (regardless of household income, ethnicity, mother’s age and education).Children living in families that experienced food hardship were more likely to:
    • have stopped breastfeeding before their first birthday
    • tried unhealthy food and drinks early in infancy
    • had fewer servings per day of fruit or vegetables at nine-months
    • a less varied intake of fruit and vegetables at four-years of age
    • consumed three or more soft drinks a week at four-years of age.

The researchers argue that while recent government initiatives have been introduced to reduce food hardships (Kickstart breakfast, the Free and Healthy Lunch Programme, recent benefit system changes providing financial relief to families and a $32 million investment helping communities to become food secure), more targeted assistance for families with young children may be required.

For enquiries about this research please email

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