For tens of millions of American children, summer’s over, and the focus is once again on math equations, book reports, group projects and standardized tests. School’s back in session.
The end of summer vacation marks a return to a routine of dependable, oftentimes free meals for kids growing up in food-insecure households—but their hunger puts them at a deficit academically. For such students, their concentration and brain function are lacking compared to their better-fed peers, inhibiting their ability to absorb material and succeed in school. There is an increasing consensus that later in life these children will struggle to graduate, find a job, and live as healthy adults—weakening the workforce and costing taxpayers.
These sad realities were the subjects of two research briefs published last week by the pediatrics research and advocacy group Children’s HealthWatch. In “Too Hungry to Learn: Food Insecurity and School Readiness,” researchers synthesized data that shows how the chronic sickness and delayed brain and social development that results from food insecurity inhibits children’s preparedness to learn in a school setting.
But the problem doesn’t start on a kid’s first day of kindergarten.
Dr. Deborah A. Frank, who directs the Boston-based Grow Clinic and also serves as a principal researcher for Children’s HealthWatch, points out that the most rapid brain growth occurs in the first year of a child’s life—more than doubling in size—and the construction of the neurotransmitters that control brain function are affected by the quality and quantity of food a child eats.
“Hunger can affect learning long before a child goes to school or can tell you they’re hungry,” she says. “Many of the children whose learning capacity is being affected by the household food insecurity, their problem is invisible because they’re so young. At the same time the brain is most vulnerable, the brain is most likely to be deprived of the nutrition it needs.”
The research in the brief also ties food insecurity to iron deficiency in young children, which can harm the development of basic motor and social skills. And the stress of problems at home, like food insecurity, stays with children throughout their school years, even damaging crucial brain structures controlling memory and social functioning.
These impacts are only compounded once a child begins school. The brief cites research that found food-insecure students between six and 11 years of age scored lower than their food-secure peers on a measure of child intelligence and were more likely to have seen a child psychologist. Those same children had a harder time getting along with their peers, were more likely to repeat a grade, and scored lower on standardized tests than their non-food-insecure classmates. Children with poor nutrition get sick more often too, leading them to miss classes—a reality Frank says “every grandmother knows.”
In Children’s HealthWatch’s second brief, “Feeding Our Human Capital: Food Insecurity and Tomorrow’s Workforce,” the authors make the case that failing to feed our children now will cost society dearly in the future. Hungry children will score lower on important benchmarks and have lower school engagement, making it more likely that they won’t finish high school, setting up significant challenges for later employment. Food-insecure children grow up to be unhealthy adults, data suggests, creating a real cost to society in the form of healthcare expenses.
In-school programs like backpack feeding and universal free lunch are important in helping kids get enough to eat once they’re of school age, Frank says, but she considers them an incomplete solution because, “the body and brain need nourishment every day.” And if a child’s brain never developed fully because it didn’t get the nutrients it needed early in life, the effects of hunger-related delays will remain—regardless of whether a child gets a free lunch in the cafeteria.
This is where programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) can fill a crucial role in the development of children’s brains both before and after they enter school. But a spate of cuts and proposed cuts, as well as sequestration, threatens these programs. On November 1, a temporary boost in SNAP benefits put into place with a 2009 economic stimulus will be rolled back, cutting $5 billion out of the program overnight. That amounts to the loss of 21 meals per month for the average family of four.
And Republicans in the House have suggested cutting the program even further—to the tune of $40.5 billion over 10 years—cuts Frank contends would devastate the hungry young children whose future success in school ride on their nutrition now.
“The numbers impacted will be incalculable,” she says. “This kitchen table program that feeds very young children is under extraordinary threat, and the health and learning capacity of children isn’t ever considered in the conversation.”