The Impact of Hunger on Children

Children of all socioeconomic levels are at-risk for poor nutrition. Some children do not get enough to eat each day because their families lack money to buy sufficient food. Other children consume enough food but have diets high in fat, sugar, and sodium that put them at risk for obesity or heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Furthermore, as the number of parents in the workforce increases, more children are being left to fend for themselves for meals.

The premise that nutrition affects children's ability to learn is not new. The link has been recognized for some time through anecdotal evidence and, more recently, through controlled research studies.

Considerable research exists on the link between nutrition and learning from the prenatal through school years, and the importance of nutrition education for children.

utrition and Learning: The Prenatal Period

Inadequate weight gain during pregnancy can increase the risk of having a low birthweight (under 5.5 pounds) baby. Low birthweight infants are more likely than other infants to have hearing, vision, or learning problems and to require special education services.

Recent evidence indicates that 15% of very low birthweight (less than 3.5 pounds) children and nearly 5% of low birthweight children require special education, compared to 4.3% of children born at normal birthweight (Newman, 1991).

The Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides food and nutrition education to pregnant and lactating low-income women. A 5-year national evaluation of this program found that young children whose mothers had participated in WIC scored significantly higher on vocabulary tests than children whose mothers did not receive WIC benefits (Rush 1986).

Nutrition and Learning: Preschool & School Years

Iron deficiency is one of the most prevalent nutritional problems of children in the United States. Iron deficiency in infancy may cause a permanent loss of IQ later in life. Iron deficiency and anemia lead to shortened attention span, irritability, fatigue, and difficulty with concentration. Consequently, anemic children tend to do poorly on vocabulary, reading, and other tests (Parker, 1989).

Several studies have found effects of hunger and poor nutrition on cognitive ability. One such study found that among fourth grade students, those who had the least protein intake in their diets had the lowest achievement scores (ASFSA, 1989).

A laboratory study that involved healthy, well-nourished school-aged children found a negative effect of morning fasting on cognitive performance. A test of the speed and accuracy of response on problem-solving tasks given to children who did or did not eat breakfast found that skipping breakfast had an adverse influence on their performance on the tests (Pollitt et al., 1991).

Children who are hungry or undernourished also have more difficulty fighting infection. Therefore, they are more likely to become sick, miss school, and fall behind in class.

For further discussion, see "Hunger: Its Impact on Children's Health and Mental Health" from Pediatrics Magazine, Volume 110, Number 4, October 2002.

American School Food Service Association (ASFSA). (1989). "Impact of Hunger and Malnutrition on Student Achievement." School Food Service Research Review 12(1, Spring): 17-21.

Newman, L. (1991). Preventing Risks of Learning Impairment: A Report for the Education Commission of the States. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States.

Parker, L. (1989). The Relationship between Nutrition and Learning: A School Employee's Guide to Information and Action. Washington, DC: National Education Association. ED 309 207.

Pollitt, E., R. Leibel, and D. Greenfield. (1991). "Brief Fasting, Stress, and Cognition in Children." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 34(Aug): 1526-1533.

Rush, D. (1986). The National WIC Evaluation: An Evaluation of the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children. Volume 1: Summary. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.