Hunger, poverty, and the school environment

Hunger and poverty affect an increasing number of U.S. families, including many “who were once solidly middle class.” Today, 16 million U.S. children are “growing up without enough money for basic necessities like food.”2 While some hunger can be classified as “famine” – “an extreme usually short-term scarcity of food” – in the U.S. students are more likely to face “chronic hunger and malnutrition” which is characterized by the “pervasive lack of the right kind of food over an extended period of time.”3 The existential threats confronted by students who lack access to nutritious foods are both physical and psychological: Hunger is associated with physiological responses such as “anxiety, irritability, or lethargy”4 as well as “adverse behavioral and mental health outcomes.”5

Hunger can also be understood through the lens of food security, defined as “access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”6 Food security can be especially volatile for low-income families living in urban areas, since they “tend not to produce their own food, and depend on markets and market prices.”7 While there are many factors that affect access to food, students’ experiences of food insecurity are defined in large part by “economic, demographic and political elements related to poverty, urbanisation and oppressive political structures.”8

The U.S. government has attempted to address food security in part through a series of “entitlement” programs, designed to act as a “safety net” for low-income families.9 For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – formerly “Food Stamps” – is the largest of “15 separate domestic food and nutrition assistance programs” administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The goal of these programs is not only to “reduce food insecurity” by “improv[ing] access to nutritious foods,” but also to “reduce some of the hardship of poverty” by freeing up resources for other needs like housing.10 Roughly half of all U.S. children receive SNAP benefits, including 90 percent of black children.11 Yet despite these efforts, nearly half of students from low-income households are affected by food insecurity.12

Even children who do not experience food insecurity directly may have “limited access to healthful, nutritious food, especially in low-income neighborhoods.”13 The existence of such “food deserts” along with factors like “time scarcity” create “substantial barriers” for students’ attainment of nutritional health14:

For many resource-scarce households, the struggle to manage the competing demands of work, transportation, social services, and child care limits the time available to prepare healthy meals and prompts the purchase of quick, convenient foods […] which tend to be energy dense and nutrient poor.15

For many low-income families, foods such as “fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, fish and lean meat” are too expensive – in terms of dollars and minutes – compared to foods “filled with refined sugars, added fats and salt.” In these cases, poverty, hunger and obesity can actually reinforce each other.16

Hunger can also affect students’ ability to learn. In addition to poverty, “even moderate undernutrition can have a lasting effect on children’s cognitive development and school performance”17:

[M]alnutrition is associated with delays in motor skills, cognitive deficits, and decreases in school performance. […] Severely malnourished children have shown to be apathetic, withdrawn, and passive and have decreased motivation and heightened anxiety.18

Nonetheless, three out of four public school teachers report that one or more of their students “regularly come to school hungry.” According to these teachers, hunger is associated with challenges that affect classroom participation including “tiredness”, “lack of energy or motivation”, and “inability to concentrate.”19

Hunger can also affect students’ long-term psychological and social development: Even after controlling for confounding factors like poverty and race, students who experience food insecurity are more likely to suffer from depression20 as well as to be suspended from school and experience problems socializing with peers.21 These “negative outcomes” are “risk factor[s]” for “later difficulties such as criminality and dropping out of school.”22 Even when parents “deprive themselves of food” to shield students from hunger – a practice that tends to decrease as children grow older23 – the resulting stress “may affect children, even if [they] are eating enough.”24

In the U.S., the school environment plays an important role in addressing students’ food security. Established in 1946, the National School Lunch Program provides free or reduced-price lunch to children from low-income households, “defined as those earning below 185 percent of the federal poverty line (currently $44,863 for a family of four).”25 In the 2008-2009 school year, more than 21.5 million students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals.26 In addition to increased nutrient intake, participation in these programs has been associated with improved behavioral and health outcomes.27 In 2010, the U.S. government expanded these programs through “community eligibility”, which allows schools where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch “to offer nutritious meals […] to all students at no charge.”28 In addition to extending the benefits of breakfast and lunch to more students, universal access to free meals “reduces stigma” associated with participation, increasing the likelihood that students can benefit from these efforts.29

Access, mobile devices, and edtech equity

2. Smiley, 2012, p. 7
3. Wurwarg, 2014, p. 77
4. Slack & Yoo, 2005, p. 515
5. ibid, p. 513
6. Coleman-Jensen et al, 2015, p. i
7. Wurwarg, 2014, p. 77
8. O’Connor et al, 2015, p. 435
9. Seefeldt et al, 2012, p. 6
10. Oliveira et al, 2014, para. 15
11. Williams, 2011
12. Winicki & Jemison, 2003
13. Sustainable Table, 2016, para. 3
14. Smith et al, 2014, para. 1
15. ibid, para. 2
16. Conner, 2010, para. 37
17. Winicki & Jemison, 2003, p. 145
18. Alaimo et al, 2001, p. 44
19. No Kid Hungry, 2015, p. 2
20. Alaimo et al, 2002
21. Alaimo et al, 2001
22. ibid
23. Urban Institute, 2016
24. ibid, pp. 49-50
25. Chingos, 2016, para. 2
26. USDOE, 2010
27. Dunifon & Kowaleski-Jones, 2003
28. Levin & Neuberger, 2013, p. 3
29. ibid, p. 5