School lunch programs might break poverty cycle

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Teens who live in households where food is scarce suffer academically, but a new study has found that government programs to provide meals in schools can reverse this effect.

According to the researchers, the findings suggest that school programs aimed at reducing so-called food insecurity can break an insidious cycle of poverty: poor children go hungry, get bad grades, don’t go on to college and fail to rise out of their socioeconomic status -- raising children whose lives follow the same unfortunate narrative.

“Food insecurity is more problematic in the long term if it occurs prior to adolescence, but it doesn’t mean that adolescents are more resilient than younger children,” said study leader Christelle Roustit, of the Research Group on the Social Determinants of Health and Healthcare, in Paris, France. The researchers reported their findings in the medical journal Pediatrics.

The severe recession has taken a toll on food security. In the United States, a recent report by the Department of Agriculture found that nearly 15% of American households faced food insecurity at some point in 2009, the highest level since officials began tracking the measure in 1995.

Food insecurity in childhood is thought to undercut scholastic achievement in at least two ways. It deprives the body of nutrients necessary for proper mental and physical development, and it creates an atmosphere of stress and uncertainty that saps a kid’s desire to attend school and to perform well.

In the new study, Roustit and her colleagues analyzed questionnaires given to 2,346 public high school students in Quebec, Canada, along with nearly 2,000 of their parents. The surveys asked about issues of school performance and socioeconomic status and included several questions addressing food security at home. These included whether a lack of money prevented the family from eating enough, or from buying a sufficient variety of foods.

Just over 11 percent of teens in the study experienced food insecurity at home, according to the researchers. Of those, two-thirds attended schools that offered free or low-cost breakfast, lunch or snacks, allowing the researchers to look for an effect of the meals program on academic performance.

The study revealed that food insecurity was strongly associated with problems in school. However, children with food insecurity at home performed significantly better academically if their school offered meal assistance. They were much less likely to be held back a year, to score badly in language testing or to rate their overall academic performance as poor.

Although the data come from the 1990s, Roustit said a new survey of Quebec adolescents is now in progress. “We would be able to compare the results of 1999 to 2009 in few years,” she said.

Nicola Edwards, a dietician and food policy expert at California Food Policy Advocates, an Oakland-based nonprofit, said the results of the study are unsurprising. If children are hungry they cannot learn, Edwards said. “There is a direct correlation between food insecurity and academic performance,” she said.

In the United States, teachers and school administrators report that children who take advantage of food assistance programs in schools have improved behavior, fewer absences and better test scores, Edwards added.

Under the federal Child Nutrition Act, more than 31 million American school children receive free or inexpensive lunches through the National School Lunch Program. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level ($28,665 for a family of four) are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level ($40,793 for a family of four) are eligible to receive lunch for a cost of no more than 40 cents.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National School Lunch Program cost $9.8 billion in 2009. A study of this program that was published earlier this year supports the Canadian findings. Dr. Peter Hinrichs at Georgetown University in Washington DC reported in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management that for children who participate in the National School Lunch Program, “the effects on educational attainment are sizable.”

SOURCES: Pediatrics online November 22, 2010 and Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, online June 3, 2010.