Food Insecurity and Childhood Nutrition: When You’re Too Hungry to Learn

How important is a good meal? It turns out, pretty darn important. Especially for a growing human. Poor nutrition during developmental stages of life not only affects the health of children but also can extend far into adulthood. Childhood hunger and food insecurity is an educational problem with a particular set of concerns beginning at birth and continuing through adolescence and involves 20% of American children. Insufficient nutrients lower mental performance and the impact is seen in infants and toddlers, who are two thirds more at risk than school-age children for permanent developmental delays.

Proper nutrition for infants and toddlers is critical for brain development; chronic undernourishment harms cognitive development during a very short window of time when growth is most rapid – to the extent that it can alter the fundamental neurological structure of the brain and the central nervous system. Children Healthwatch research ties iron-deficiency anemia to food insecurity. Further, deficiencies in nutrients such as choline, folic acid, zinc and iodine can impair cognitive and motor development, and these effects are often irreversible. These micronutrients have been linked specifically to early brain function. Similarly, there is growing evidence that DHA, an essential fatty acid, is a key component of the intensive production of synapses that makes the first years of life a critical period of learning and development. The stress of food insecurity on developing infants and toddlers can physically alter brain structures that control memory and psychosocial function.

Once children reach school age the impact of food insecurity and poor nutrition is devastating, not just to school performance but to the opportunities available to these children in the long-term. And this devastation is far-reaching, as the impact ripples out to affect all of us as a society. The simple fact is, hungry children do more poorly in school and have lower academic achievement because they are not well prepared for school, cannot concentrate, and lack the brain structures that are needed to develop complex school skills and later job skills.

Hungry children have more social and behavioral problems, have less energy for complex social interactions, and cannot adapt as effectively to environmental stresses. The negative effects of hunger and food insecurity on children are:

  • Greater absenteeism and tardiness.
  • Impaired ability to concentrate and perform well in school.
  • Higher levels of behavioral problems and more aggression and anxiety.
  • Higher levels of hyper-activity.
  • Decreased IQs, poor problem solving, recall, memory and verbal function.
  • Lower math and reading scores.
  • Impaired social skills.

The news gets worse for teenagers who remain food insecure. A study of food-insufficient teenagers found that they scored lower on academic achievement tests and were also more likely to have to repeat a grade or be suspended than food-sufficient teenagers. Food insecure teens are more likely to have difficulties getting along with others. Teenagers who do not finish high school face poorer health, unemployment and lower earnings. Research shows a relationship between academic achievement and economic mobility, reflecting a direct correlation between higher earnings and higher levels of education. When adolescents graduate high school it is a doorway to higher education and greater earning opportunities and financial stability. Not only do food insecure teens graduate at lower rates, setting the stage for a lifetime of lower financial stability, but research finds it also leads to a host of health related disabilities.

The good news: A 2007 Journal of American Dietetic Association study found regular breakfast consumption is linked to improved physical and academic performance in adolescence.

When breakfast is served to children of all ages the following occurs:

  • Increase in academic achievement, particularly math scores.
  • Attendance improves, less likely to be tardy. 1.5 increased days of attendance.
  • Fewer behavioral and psychological problems.
  • Increased attentiveness.
  • Better problem solving, recall, memory, verbal function, and creativity.
  • IQ increases.

Whether through school or at home, having access to nutritious meals at all times of the day is critical to childhood development and gives our nation’s children the best opportunity for a fulfilled life. 21 million children and adolescents are eligible for free or reduced price breakfast but only 12% receive it even though they qualify. Expanding participation and availability is worth the effort. Here we’ve primarily focused on the costs to education and development for food insecure kids and how important nutrition is for them to have the best chances for economic security. There is another side of the story that tells of the significant health costs of poor nutrition for children. We’ll address that next month, as the full picture brings home the impact food insecurity and poor nutrition has on our society as a whole.

Rescuing wasted food in the US can directly contribute to more access to more food for more people. Donation and delivery of excess food by organizations like Table to Table helps ease the burden of government assistance, allowing parents to give their kids the best chance to have healthy lives and financial success and to break the cycle of food insecurity and poverty.


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