Dec. 22, 2005

Not always having enough to eat can impair reading and math development in children, Cornell study confirms

Kevin Stearns/University Photography
Edward Frongillo, sitting with well-fed students at Cornell's Early Childhood Center, did a longitudinal study that provides the strongest evidence to date that when children don't always have enough to eat, their academic progress, particularly in reading and math, as well as their social skills suffer.

When young school-age children do not always have enough to eat, their academic development -- especially reading -- suffers, according to a new longitudinal Cornell University study.

The research provides the strongest evidence to date that food insecurity has specific developmental consequences for children. Food insecurity is defined as households having limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate or safe foods.

"We found that reading development, in particular, is affected in girls, though the mathematical skills of food-insecure children entering kindergarten also tend to develop significantly more slowly than other children's," said Edward Frongillo, associate professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell. The study also found that girls' social skills suffer when families that have been food secure become food insecure while the child is in the early primary grades.

"In addition, we found that kindergarten girls from food-insecure families tend to gain more weight than other girls, which may put them at risk for obesity as adults," he said.

Frongillo, Cornell graduate student Diana Jyoti, who will receive her master's degree in January, and Sonya Jones of the University of South Carolina analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education's Early Childhood Longitudinal Study on about 21,000 children who entered kindergarten in 1998 and were followed through third grade.

The study is published in the December issue of the Journal of Nutrition (135:12).

"Despite federal food assistance and private charitable programs, food insecurity is a persistent national problem," said Frongillo, noting that it affects 12 percent of all households and 18 percent of households with children.

The new longitudinal study builds on previous work by Frongillo and colleagues, published in 2002, which found that hunger and poverty in the United States are severe enough to significantly impair the academic and psychosocial development of school-age children and adolescents. Compared with food-secure children and adolescents, children from food-insecure families were found to be five times more likely to attempt suicide, four times more likely to suffer from chronic, low-grade depression (dysthymia), which is a high-risk factor for major depression, were almost twice as likely to have been suspended from school and were 1.4 times more likely to repeat a grade and to have significantly lower math scores.

About one in five American children live in poverty, the highest level of childhood poverty among developed nations, and more than 13 million children under age 18 live in food-insecure households. Although these numbers demonstrate the magnitude of this social problem, they do not adequately express the real burden of food deprivation for American children, Frongillo said.