Today’s topic addresses one that may seem obvious to us, but also surprising in the United States. Children who grow up hungry in the first few years of childhood have been shown to lag behind classmates in school years later. Food insecurity, or being without reliable access to nutritious food, is a phenomenon that can be found in the United States: more than 13 million children are currently living in food-insecure homes nationwide. A recent article summarized in NPR (originally published in the journal Child Development) found that children who live in these homes before the age of five are more likely to lag behind their classmates in school socially and cognitively.
Also, it appears that these children don’t catch up to their peers. Researchers used data from the U.S. Department of Education from 2000 to 2006 to follow more than 10,000 children born in these households throughout their young childhood. They also interviewed the parents of these children to ask them about recent times they may have worried about food for the household. The researchers found that the younger that children were when they were exposed to food hardship, the stronger the negative effect on their performance in kindergarten (performance was measured by their ability to pay attention in class, their tendency to be hyperactive or throw tantrums, and their math and reading skills).
This negative effect might not be entirely attributable to the children themselves. After all, if children are hungry, then their parents are likely to be as well. The researchers affirmed that parents who are hungry can be more irritable and tired, and are less likely to engage with their children. These findings are certainly not surprising, but they confirm some important facts about early childhood and the important link between nutrition, parent interaction, and school performance. It is difficult to design interventions for very young children before they attend daycare or preschool, but the projections from this stage in life to performance in school cannot be ignored.
Food insecurity is definitely not just a foreign phenomenon, and not just an adult one. That there are millions of American children at risk of being insufficiently prepared for school should shock us all - but thanks to this kind of research, we’ll be able to lay the groundwork for erasing this gap in potential for children starting now.