Food for Thought: How Food Insecurity Affects a Child’s Education

This is the first post in a two-part blog series. Read part two.

Carinne Deeds, Policy Associate

For most school-aged youth, having food on the table after a day at school is a safe bet. But for Kaylie and Tyler, no meal is taken for granted. The two often have to choose between milk and cereal for breakfast – rarely are both available at the same time. Kaylie collects cans after school to redeem for money, while Tyler mows the lawns of neighbors to help pay for groceries – a burden that most 10- and 12-year-olds do not have to bear. For these siblings from Iowa, and millions of children like them, the threat of going to school hungry is a reality.

Food insecurity currently affects nearly 50 million people nationwide – most frequently, families with children. A recent Food Research & Action Center study revealed that as of April 2015, one in six households reported the inability to afford food.

But what exactly is food insecurity, and what does it mean for those affected by it? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides two categories of food insecurity:

  1. Low food security: Reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet.
  2. Very low food security: Evidence of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

The term “food insecure” encompasses both of the above categories, and is often used in public policy discussions to draw a technical boundary around the inability to afford food. The term in itself, however, does not paint a complete picture of what it actually looks and feels like to be an undernourished American student. A USDA study revealed that over 80 percent of households with very low food security reported cutting the size of meals, cutting the frequency of meals, or skipping meals altogether. While the biggest stressor for most school-aged children might be homework, household chores, or who won the soccer game, for many others, getting a full, healthy meal is a greater concern.

How does this relate to a child’s education? Many education policymakers, practitioners, and researchers often focus on factors like student intelligence, teacher quality, and rigor of curriculum when considering the various factors that influence a student’s academic success. Even in conversations about non-academic factors such as parental education, parental involvement, and socioeconomic status, the important role that food security plays in a child’s ability to achieve is often overlooked. Here are a few reasons why it shouldn’t be:

Food Security and Health

It’s easy to take for granted the basic daily functions like eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner that have such a critical impact on our ability to function physically and intellectually. The amount, availability, and quality of food all affect children’s health, as well as their brain development.

  • Children who grow up in food insecure households often lag behind their food-secure peers in terms of cognitive, emotional, and physical development.
  • Research indicates that food-insecure children are almost twice as likely to be in fair or poor health when compared to food-secure children, and are significantly more likely to be hospitalized.
  • The most affordable food is often the most unhealthy – especially in food deserts, where finding healthy food at an affordable price can be particularly difficult. Food-insecure households are much more likely than food-secure households to report eating unhealthy foods.

Food Security, Socio-Emotional, and Behavioral Factors

Aside from the mental and physical consequences of food insecurity, a child’s social and emotional health are also at risk when he or she is not adequately nourished. This can lead to behavioral issues that affect not only home life, but school life as well.

  • Research shows that mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and behavioral problems among children (and their mothers) increase as food insecurity increases.
  • Food insecurity often prevents children from functioning normally in social settings due to a poorer physical quality of life. Specifically, food-insecure students are often not fully engaged in daily activities such as social interactions with peers at school. They also have greater difficulty getting along with other students.
  • By the time they are teenagers, food-insecure children are twice as likely as their peers to have seen a psychologist or to have been suspended.

Food Security and Education

In addition to the cognitive, emotional, mental, and physical consequences of food insecurity and poor nutrition, a wide body of research indicates that these consequences follow children into the classroom, often resulting in poor academic performance.

  • Children from homes with persistent food insecurity have shown smaller gains in both reading and math than their food-secure counterparts.
  • Food-insecure children and teenagers have been shown to miss school more frequently, and are more likely to repeat a grade than food-secure children.
  • Food insecurity has been shown to reduce a child’s chances of graduating from high school.
  • Growing up food-insecure has consequences even beyond K-12 education. Research shows that workers who experienced hunger* as children “are not as well prepared physically, mentally, emotionally or socially to perform effectively in the contemporary workforce.”

There is no doubt that a child who grows up without adequate nutrition will face significant barriers to academic achievement. The various physical, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive costs of food insecurity make it extremely difficult for these students to reach their full potential. Although programs like the National School Lunch Program and the Summer Food Service Program have been providing meals to income-eligible students for years, research indicates they may not be enough on their own to mitigate the damaging effects of food insecurity on students.

Stay tuned for the second blog post in this series, which will discuss additional ways in which schools can address food insecurity among students. Although the burden to provide a solution to child food insecurity cannot fall on the public school system alone, schools may be an important mechanism to help provide both academic and non-academic supports for students to help ensure that they reach their full potential.

*Note: The USDA defines hunger as “a consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation.” Not all students who are food-insecure are considered hungry but all children who are classified as hungry are also classified as food-insecure.

Further reading: This comprehensive, 4-year study of over 21,000 children provides strong evidence of the relationship between food insecurity and various elements of personal and academic development.

Carinne Deeds is a Policy Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.