Academic Cost of Food Insecurity

‘Tis the season for holiday feasts. Yet not all families will have access to the party spreads portrayed on current magazine covers. Indeed, some 16 percent of U.S. households that include children lack the funds to reliably keep ample, much less nutritious, food on the dinner table. Grade school children coming from such households don’t fare as well academically and exhibit more behavioral problems than do children from homes able to afford good and plentiful food, a new study finds.

Previous research had shown these relationships, but the new study was of a nationally representative sample of children, and it’s the first research on academics and behavior to look at effects of nutrition over more than a snapshot of time. As such, says nutritional epidemiologist Edward A. Frongillo of Cornell University, his team’s study is “the strongest single piece of evidence” that children getting poor nutrition face setbacks in many aspects of their lives.

Classroom setbacks

The Department of Education has since 1998 been surveying about 21,000 children in more than 1,500 elementary schools. Researchers administered tests of academic skills in these children in the spring of kindergarten and again in the spring of third grade. Parents of the children were also given a survey that included 18 questions about food availability in the home, such as: “Did your child sometimes go hungry over the past year because you couldn’t afford enough food?” “Did your household have to rely on a few low-cost foods to make sure there was enough to eat?” and “Do you ever cut the size of meal portions because there isn’t enough food?”

Frongillo’s team used data from the more than 11,000 youngsters and their families for which academic evaluations and full surveys were available in both kindergarten and third-grade. Parents of 17 percent of the children had answered yes to at least one question about limited food availability, more than 8 percent answered yes to at least three questions.

The researchers then stratified the children and their families into four groups, according to what the scientists call “food-security” status: children whose access to food had always been secure, those for whom it had always been tenuous, those for whom it went from secure to insecure during the years of the study, and those whose food access went from insecure to secure. The scientists compared average academic performance and measurements among these groups.

Gender differences emerged when children went from an environment of secure food resources to uncertain food supplies, the new study finds. Boys tended to gain some weight, girls to lose it. These boys exhibited slightly better-than-average social skills for their age, whereas the girls’ social skills lagged those of their food-secure peers. Social skills were graded by teachers according to kids’ apparent self-control, signs of anxiety or depression, and attitudes consistent with learning.

Affects of food on academic performance also varied with gender, the new study finds. For instance, among only girls, persistent food insecurity was associated with a significant delay in reading achievement over the 3 years studied. In that span, the children were expected to gain about 70 points in reading scores. Girls who experienced food insecurity at any time during the 3 years gained, on average, only 68 points in reading scores, and those who came from households with persistent food insecurity gained about 67 points. Boys also showed somewhat slower reading achievements with food insecurity, but the shortfall was much smaller than for girls and not really notable except among boys who went from food security in kindergarten to uncertain food access in third grade.

How important was the delay in reading achievement experienced by these children, especially the girls? “It’s hard to say,” Frongillo says. “Certainly, it’s not a huge effect.” On the other hand, he says, most educators would be thrilled to find some factor that could raise kids’ reading abilities a few points.

Food insecurity also correlated with a small delay in mathematical achievements. As with reading, the math-achievement shortfalls were bigger among the girls than among the boys.

Finally, youngsters from homes that persistently experienced unreliable food supplies showed a slightly greater gain in body-mass index (a height-adjusted measure of heaviness) and tended, on average, to weigh about 0.65 kilogram more than children their age from homes with consistently secure food supplies. This counterintuitive trend of insecure food situations yielding heavier kids may reflect the fact that higher-fat and less-nutritious foods tend to be cheaper than healthier fare and so make up a disproportionate share of meals in poor families (see Money Matters in Obesity).

A sign of struggling

Many studies have linked childhood malnutrition with slow learning. However, Frongillo points out, the children in this study weren’t starving. Rather, they were sometimes hungry. The fact that many gained more weight than their peers did suggests that low-income children weren’t experiencing a calorie shortfall as much as uncertain access to good nutrition, say the researchers. These kids might have had plenty of bread or rice, for instance, but little access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Or they might have had bacon and cold cuts but no fish or lean meats.

In fact, Frongillo suspects, food insecurity may not have had a direct effect on the academic measures in this study. But a family’s food resources may be a marker of other stresses in the household—income insecurity, for instance—that might foster anger, violence, chaotic study environments, or simply less presence by adults who can enforce study time and coach slow learners.

In other words, the Cornell scientist says, the academic deficits seen in this study “may be tip of the iceberg” of what’s happening to children in environments so stressful they can’t even count on getting good and plentiful food. Food insecurity, he says, may simply point to “families that are struggling” with a host of problems.

However, to the extent that even classroom achievement and behavior is being affected, children facing what scientists call food insecurity may warrant extra academic services from schools, Frongillo says. “Based on everything we know about basic skills,” he notes, “gaps seen in the early years will just intensify over time,” leading, potentially, to serious achievement and behavioral differences in kids’ high school years.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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