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Hunger, Academic Success, and the Hard Bigotry of Indifference

By Gerald Coles

Approximately 17 percent of American children live in households defined as "food insecure," that is, the families face "difficulty providing enough food for all its members due to a lack of resources." For African American and Latino children, the percentages are higher: 22 percent and 20 percent respectively. Troublesome as these numbers are, they likely underestimate the degree of children's hunger because, according to the Food Research and Action Center, "only households experiencing substantial food insecurity are so classified"; less intense levels are not.

And if these conditions weren't bad enough, they actually grow worse by the day. With the economy slumping, a recent CNN poll found that Americans are spending less on groceries and are likely to shift to cheaper, poorer quality food, in order to reduce spending. For poor families facing food cost increases in the last year — such as a rise between 12 and 17 percent for milk, bread, cheese, rice, pasta, beans, and peas and a 25 percent increase for eggs — the hunger crisis affecting the poor is evermore acute.

The impact of food insecurity and hunger becomes evident early in children's lives (for brevity, I will use the term "food insecurity" for both terms insofar as the line between "food insecurity" and "hunger" is commonly non-existent). Research on young children in several U.S. cities found that food insecure children were two thirds more likely to experience developmental risks in expressive and receptive language, fine and gross motor control, social behavior, emotional control, self-help, and preschool functioning. These outcomes held even after controlling for potential confounding variables such as caregiver's education, employment, and depressive symptoms. Other data from a study of 1,000 poor families identified associations between food insecurity and children's behavior problems, such as temper tantrums, fighting, sadness, depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

With the start of school, early developmental problems evolving from food insecurity are likely to progress into an array of psychological, behavior, and social skills difficulties. For example, food insecure children are more likely to miss more school days, repeat a grade, see a psychologist, and be less able to get along with other children. Not surprisingly, food insecure children are, in the early grades, also more likely to have academic problems, particularly in reading and arithmetic. A longitudinal study found that food insecurity significantly lowers children's test scores for word identification, passage comprehension, and arithmetic tests. Other studies show similar outcomes. Following a sample of 21,000 nationally representative children from kindergarten through 3rd grade, researchers found that throughout these grades children in food insecure families at kindergarten made smaller gains in mathematics and reading than did children in food secure families.

Food insecurity need not start at the beginning of a child's life for its severe effects to emerge. Research on children who began kindergarten in food secure homes and at that time were doing well academically, found that when the children began experiencing food insecurity in later grades, their reading development slowed in contrast to children whose homes remained food secure. Some good news is that, conversely, a change from food insecurity to food security can bring concomitant improvements: the study also found that poor reading performance for food insecure children in the beginning grades was reversed if the household became food secure by 3rd grade.

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