Hunger, Academic Success, and the Hard Bigotry of Indifference

By Gerald Coles

Illustrator: JD King

Illustration: JD King

If you think poverty can damage academic achievement, you obviously haven’t been paying attention these last eight years. Had you talked with George W. Bush and suggested that poverty and academic achievement are connected, he’d surely have insisted you’re partaking in the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” You’re making “excuses” for poor children’s academic problems compared with the greater academic success of children from affluent homes. Regardless of their social conditions, “all children can learn,” Bush repeated in speech after speech on education. Forget poverty! All that is needed for educational excellence is direct instruction, “scientifically-based” prepackaged materials, lots of testing, school choice, and punishment of “failing schools.” This remarkable brew will transcend the effects of poverty, or so it was believed by the president, whose strong faith in the singular power of this brew allowed him to feel comfortable repeatedly reducing every area of the federal budget essential to poor children’s fundamental well-being.

Aiding Bush in this “no excuses” campaign have been educators and psychologists whose work has focused narrowly on instruction, cognition, and brain activity, without a word about social class conditions impacting children for better or worse. An example is Sally Shaywitz, a pediatrician and reading researcher at Yale University, an author of National Reading Panel Report (the theoretical underpinning of Bush’s Reading First policy), and a steering committee member of the 2004 National Educators for Bush. A major booster of the lockstep, skills-heavy pathway to literacy, Shaywitz has confidently asserted that “at last we know the specific steps a child or adult must take to build and then reinforce the neural pathways deep within the brain for skilled reading.” Offering “a new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level” and self-described as a “working scientist who has wrestled with the conundrum” of reading problems “for more than two decades,” Shaywitz, like similar promoters of Bush’s educational policies, has never seen poor children’s socio-economic conditions as part of the “conundrum” with which to grapple.

Nonetheless, despite their relentless appeals to “science” in adjudicating educational matters, the Bush educational scientists have clearly disregarded a lot of science that shows how social class conditions directly influence academic outcomes. Certainly many poor children manage to succeed academically, but they do so while facing onerous forces that, but for the cruelty of policy makers in this rich nation, they should never have to confront in the first place. A graphic example of the effect of these social class conditions and the cruelty that generates them is hunger.

Food Insecurity, Hunger, and School Achievement

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.

Food Insecurity Influences Child Development

The impact of food insecurity on child development and academic achievement is complex, with its connections both direct and indirect. The most direct effect is through insufficient levels of nutrients, a connection evident in research on breakfast programs and nutritional risk.

One such investigation began by calculating each child’s total daily energy by assessing the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of nutrients for age and gender and translating this into the child’s energy requirements. With this assessment, a low-energy diet was defined as a total daily energy intake of 50 percent or less than the RDA. In turn, nutritional risk was estimated by assessing a child’s intake levels of specific nutrients, such as vitamins (particularly vitamins A, B6, B12, and C), folate, iron, zinc, and calcium. By these measures, 30 percent of the children in the breakfast program had combined low energy and nutrient intake. The study then focused on this “low nutrient intake group.” Using a “Pediatric Symptom Checklist,” a screening test for identifying cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems, the researchers found that children who were nutritionally at risk had “significantly poorer attendance; lower grades, especially in reading, math, social studies, and science; poorer attendance; higher rate of tardiness; and more behavior problems” than children not at nutritional risk.

However, this study also demonstrated the developmental and school benefits of nutritional improvement. Six months after the start of the breakfast program, students with initial nutritional deficiencies who participated regularly in the breakfast program and showed nutritional improvements — thereby decreasing their nutritional risk — showed significantly greater improvements in attendance, academic functioning, and behavior than children who participated irregularly in the program and thereby did not decrease their nutritional risk.

Another breakfast program investigation used a very different group of children — those from a middle-class background, in good health and free from learning disorders — to probe the substantial effects of children’s nutritional makeup on cognitive and academic outcomes. The children went to school without eating breakfast, then at the school cafeteria ate either one of two common U.S. breakfasts — nutritious oatmeal or minimally nutritious ready-to-eat cereal — or ate no breakfast. An hour after breakfast time they were tested with a variety of cognitive assessments. Over the course of the study, each participant received all three breakfast conditions, thereby serving as his or her own control. Test scores showed that the children who ate oatmeal did better on a variety of cognitive measures, particularly in complex visual processing, auditory attention, spatial memory, and short-term memory. In contrast, the ready-to-eat cereal group had poorer scores, with the no-breakfast group having the poorest.

What occurred biologically that produced these differences? The researchers underscored oatmeal’s superior amount of protein and fiber content, slower rate of digestion and longer energy effect compared with the low fiber, ready-to-eat cereal. Given these differences, the cognitive benefits were most likely related to the “blood glucose response following a meal,” with circulating glucose enhancing learning and memory, “perhaps through the synthesis of acetylcholine,” a neurotransmitter that modulates neuronal activity associated with increased memory and learning strength (that is, the neurotransmitter enhances some neuronal activity and suppresses others related to memory and learning).

Moreover, the researchers hypothesized, oatmeal’s greater amount of fiber and protein improved cognition because protein increases levels of the amino acid tyrosine, that in turn increases the synthesis of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which contribute to alertness, attention, and memory. In contrast, a minimally nutritious ready-to-eat cereal with high amounts of fast-metabolizing carbohydrates and low amounts of protein increase the amino acid tryptophan, which raises the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can reduce memory, alertness, and cognition.

Other studies have found that nutrient deficiencies need not be extensive to impact cognitive and academic outcomes. For example, iron-deficient children had “greater than twice the risk of scoring below average in math than children with normal iron status.” Reading scores too were lower for iron-deficient children although the differences were not statistically significant. However, as the researchers put it, “children with iron deficiency had a significantly elevated risk for scoring below average in reading.” Iron deficiency impairs cognition by affecting the functioning of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which plays a role in learning, memory, and attention.

Indirect Connections Between Food Insecurity and Academic Outcome

In addition to direct connections between food insecurity and behavioral and academic outcomes, there are indirect associations. Food insecurity is frequently associated with familial psychological and emotional stress that can have dire consequences for children. Poor heads of households worry about having enough money to buy sufficient food for their children and might have to go hungry to ensure that their children eat enough from the limited amount available. Food insecurity also means that parents have to cope with children’s complaints about being hungry. As documented in a study of over 1,000 poor families, these and similar stresses can lead to parental anxiety, depression, and anger that in turn can have dire emotional consequences for their children, as reflected in behavior problems, such as temper tantrums and fighting with other children, and in emotional states, such as sadness, depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Research yielding poignant expressions of these connections asked poor children to talk about the experience of families with insufficient food. One child commented, “The children start looking sad and everything and their parents’ attitudes get worse ’cause the kids get real hungry and the parents start to get madder and madder ’cause the kids’ beggin’.” Describing parental anxiety, another child said, “They make those sad faces. They will look crazy and try to borrow food.”

The researchers also found that the emotional well-being of hungry children can even be affected in food programs designed to help them. For example, while hungry children can benefit nutritionally from a school lunch program, the school culture in which children joke about the quality of these lunches can prompt other students to “make fun” of poor children who “eat all of their food” in order to stave off hunger at home. Then there is the shameful effect poverty and hunger can have on classroom social relationships. As one child put it, “The children don’t want their friends to think bad of them or think that they are a poor family… yeah, a whole lot of people would take that as an advantage over you… if he tells the truth [about not having food] in a class of boys, they will take that to their advantage” by mocking or shunning him.

Hunger and Food Insecurity: Better Legislation But Not Enough

As I said at the beginning of this article, if you talk about the dire effects of poverty on children’s development and learning outcomes, the Bush administration and its ideologues will accuse you of encouraging a “culture of defeatism” and misdirecting attention to threadbare “conventional nostrums,” such as the belief that government programs are essential for helping poor children learn. Moreover, says the Heritage Foundation, a prominent Bush cheerleading institute, if we want to talk about food insecurity and hunger, the facts show that “Contrary to the claims of poverty advocates, the major dietary problem facing poor Americans is too much, not too little, food!” Liberal whiners are propelled by “hunger hysteria,” not facts, say these right-wing alchemists, who are never at a loss to claim that night is day.

Nevertheless, the facts of hunger are vivid in the government programs that assist the poor, such as the Food Stamps program that serves about 27 million hungry people each month. The “hunger hysteria” can be further gauged by the average benefit for an individual in the program, which is about $1 per meal, an amount based on the “Thrifty Food Plan,” (TFP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This theoretical diet assumes that a poor household will get sufficient food and nutrients by combining their food stamp benefits with 30 percent of their income. However, even USDA research does not support this assumption, having found that only 12 percent of poor households that buy food according to the TFP get their recommended dietary allowances for 11 key nutrients. At best the TFP provides only minimal nutrition and in many areas of the country food costs are so high that families are unable to purchase all the food included in the TFP. (While national average of food costs rose by 4.7 percent from March 2007 to March ’08, the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan rose over the same period by 5.6 percent. Research evaluating the effect of the Food Stamp program found that it reduced, but did not eliminate, the association between food insecurity and poor health.

Legislation passed this summer under the “Farm Bill” will help rectify some of the more egregious aspects of food insecurity and hunger (the bill is somewhat misnamed because two thirds of its funds go to nutritional programs). It raises the minimum benefit of monthly food stamp assistance; indexes food stamp purchasing power to inflation; eliminates basic deductions that formerly affected a family’s eligibility for food stamps; helps emergency feeding organizations such as food banks; and provides free fruits and vegetables to children in low-income schools.

However, while this legislation does improve nutritional support for poor families, it is insufficient for eliminating food insecurity and hunger. For example, because the standard family deduction was frozen in 1996 but inflation continued, a typical working parent with two children in 2008 receives about $37 less in food stamps each month than she would have without the 1996 freeze. With the new legislation, the minimum standard deduction and indexing for inflation would, in 2009, provide a typical family of three an additional $4 to $5 a month in food stamp benefits, an amount that would rise to $17 a month by 2017. However, the benefit in 2009 would mean less than $2 a month for each family member and even by 2017 would still, in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars, not allow the family to catch up to the 1996 food stamps income level.

A forthright look at the empirical evidence of the impact of food insecurity and hunger on children reveals the hard bigotry of indifference that has marked national policy in recent years. While covering the presidential primary campaign in poor towns of Pennsylvania, UK Guardian correspondent Gary Younge, in conversations with the “desperate” and “despondent” across the state, heard the following from Cindy Digga, county community action advocate, “They can put a man on the moon but all they can do for poor people is give out blocks of cheese? Don’t you think America should be able to do better than that?” Younge concluded, “The U.S. needs to talk about class.”

George W. Bush will no doubt eat Texas-sized meals back on the ranch, but his legacy continues, with hunger, especially children’s hunger, increasing across the nation. As one national food bank director noted in an interview with USA Today, “I’ve never seen this type of demand before. People call us saying, ‘In the past I’ve been a donor. Now I need the help.'” At food pantries, said another director, the lines are filled with families whose children do not have enough to eat. The Obama presidency offers hope for change, however, the extent of that change is uncertain. As Stan Karp wrote in the previous issue of Rethinking Schools, Obama’s “centrist balancing act” is strongly influenced by competing interests that span from ordinary Americans to corporate America. Will Obama take the needed bold steps to serve the first group and reverse the Bush policies that served the second at the expense of the first? For Obama to do so will require support and pressure: Americans, especially teachers, will have to exude more than an “audacity of hope.” What is needed is a nationwide movement that bolsters and pushes the new administration to create initiatives that substantially address class and poverty, of which food insecurity and hunger are a part. Without such a movement, pressure from the rich and powerful surely will truncate such initiatives. Countless teachers have done and will do praiseworthy work with poor children, many of whom will do well academically despite contending daily with the injurious forces poverty imposes. But the reality is that without eradicating the damaging forces of social class, no form of instruction will be sufficient to ensure that no poor child is left behind.

Gerald Coles is an Ithaca, N.Y.-based educational psychologist who has written extensively on literacy and learning disabilities. His books include Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation and Lies (Heinemann); Misreading Reading (Heinemann); and Reading Lessons: The Debate Over Literacy (Hill & Wang).