Food insecurity threatens the learning of children under the age of 5
Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Creative Commons.

Under-5s’ food insecurity threatens their learning

By Anna Johnson and , | March 2017 

15 million children in the US live in families that face food insecurity. It can put younger children behind, potentially for the rest of their lives.

Imagine a world in which millions of young American children don’t live with food insecurity. They’d be more ready for school, better able to count and know their alphabet letters. They’d find it easier to sit still, pay attention and finish a task. They’d probably be better at making friends and more eager to learn.

Our study suggests that millions of young American children experience considerable, potentially lifelong educational disadvantages as a result of food insecurity. Eliminating food insecurity for children under five in low-income homes, our research suggests, could significantly improve their readiness to learn and succeed, both in school and in life.

Ending food insecurity is easier said than done. For one thing, it would be expensive. It would also be more difficult for infants and toddlers than for older children, who can be fed directly at school. However, it would also be more straightforward, in principle, than resolving other problems that can also damage young children, such as poor parenting that results from mental illness or domestic violence.

Study design

Ours is the first US study to examine the educational disadvantages incurred when young children live in households with food insecurity. There are 15 million children in food insecure households in the US – these are homes where the quality and quantity of available food is inadequate to fuel a healthy lifestyle. However, food insecurity isn’t as simple as saying that children in these homes go to bed hungry. In some of these homes, the children may eat enough but the parents may miss meals or worry that there won’t be sufficient food for everyone.

“Their reading and math skills at kindergarten are poorer, as are their capacities to sit still, pay attention and finish a task.”

We examined a nationally representative group of several thousand children born in the US in 2001 into low-income households – defined as those with incomes at or below 185% of the Federal Poverty Line. We checked for food insecurity at three developmental stages – baby (9 months), toddler (2 years) and preschool (4 years). We looked for any links between food insecurity at these stages and children’s reading, math and social-emotional skills in their kindergarten year.

At each of these stages, Mom reported on, for instance, whether anyone at home had skipped a meal because food was short, had worried about there not being enough food, or hadn’t been able to provide nutritionally appropriate food. Based on the answers, we found that children in about one-fifth of these low-income homes experienced some level of food insecurity.

Food insecurity linked to poorer performance in kindergarten

Cross-referencing these findings with children’s performance in kindergarten, we discovered that food insecurity at any of the three stages predicted poorer development in cognitive and social-emotional skills. But the impact was greater when children experienced the insecurity earlier, as babies or toddlers. Their reading and math skills in kindergarten were poorer; so were their approaches to learning, which encompasses their capacity to sit still, pay attention and finish a task. Outcomes were worst when food insecurity was chronic, occurring at all three stages.

We found that the achievement gap between low-income children living with food insecurity and similar children who were food secure was significant – a quarter to a tenth of a standard deviation. In some cases, that’s approaching the school readiness boost found in some – though not all – studies evaluating the effects of high quality preschool, such as Head Start.

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Creative Commons.

Other research demonstrates that educational disadvantages accumulated by kindergarten typically hold children back throughout their educational career. That’s why policy makers should focus on improving opportunities during the early years. Our findings suggest that a sizeable early gain – with possible lifelong ramifications – could be achieved by reducing food insecurity for low-income families with young children.

Our study was structured to control for the role of maternal depression, which can cause food insecurity. So our findings can’t be wholly explained on the grounds that depression among mothers is a cause – or an effect – of food insecurity. However, we can’t identify the mechanism by which food insecurity affects children’s capacities. It might simply be a nutritional effect. Alternatively, we could be seeing the long-term impact of family stress that may disrupt both a mother’s ability to provide food and a child’s early cognitive and social development.

Solution is expensive but not technically difficult

Could we eliminate this problem? The good news is that we think we know how to do so. Ending food insecurity is technically a lot easier than trying to rescue a child from poor parenting, mental illness, violence or drug addiction at home. It might be expensive, but it can be done.

“Could we eliminate this problem? Ending food insecurity is technically a lot easier than trying to rescue a child from poor parenting, mental illness, violence or drug addiction at home.”

In the US, policy makers are often averse to giving money to poor people because they can’t guarantee that it will be spent on kids. But it’s quite possible to imagine creating a normalized, non-stigmatized community food distribution or dining experience available to low-income families with babies and toddlers. Such a solution would address both food insecurity and fears about how food assistance dollars are spent.

Doing something to temper the very considerable risks of food insecurity to the healthy development of our youngest citizens is an issue, first, of perception – acknowledging the evidence. The next issue is finding the will to fund a creative solution.

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