February 8, 2006

Food Insecurity Affects Children's Development

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Children who cannot get all the food they need suffer significant developmental consequences, especially in reading skills, according to a new study done by Cornell researchers.

“Food Insecurity Affects School Children’s Academic Performance, Weight Gain and Social Skills” was published in the December 2005 issue of the Journal of Nutrition. Prof. Edward Frongillo, nutritional sciences, Diana Jyoti grad and Sonya Jones, a graduate student from the University of South Carolina, co-authored the study.

“We used longitudinal data to investigate how food insecurity over time related to changes in reading and mathematics test performance, weight and [body mass index] and social skills in children,” the study says.

The research was based on the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study published by the U.S. Department of Education. This data followed the progress of approximately 21,000 children from kindergarten to third grade.

The paper concludes that food insecurity has a significant impact on weight gain in girls, on social skills in boys and on academic performance in both genders.

“We found that reading development, in particular, is affected in girls, though the mathematical skills of food-insecure children … also tend to develop more slowly than other children’s,” Frongillo told the Cornell Chronicle.

The study said that food insecurity, defined as “limited or uncertain availability of or inability to acquire nutritionally adequate, safe and acceptable foods due to financial resource constraint,” is a serious problem even in the United States, affecting 11 percent of all American households and 16 percent of those with children. According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, as of 2004, 12.7 percent of all Americans were considered poor and approximately 35 percent of those were children under 18 years of age.

The 2006 federal poverty level is set at an annual income of $9,800 for an individual and $16,600 for a family of three, according the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The study is significant because it is the “strongest evidence to date” of the consequences of not having enough food available.

“Although the links between malnutrition and cognition and between fasting and cognition in children are well established, the literature reporting on the effects of less severe forms of food insecurity on academic performance is less consistent,” the study said.

Frongillo has done work in this area of study before. In 2002, he and colleagues published a paper that hunger and poverty “significantly impair[ed] the academic and psychosocial development” of school-age children.

Archived article by Chris Barnes
Sun Staff Writer