School Lunch Programs Can Reverse Poor Academic Performance

School lunch programs could help reverse the negative effects of food scarcity on the academic performance of teens, according to a new study published Monday.

The researchers said the government food-assistance programs could help break the cycle of poverty in which poor children go hungry, receive poor grades, don’t advance to college and fail to escape their socioeconomic status, which results in their children repeating the cycle.

“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 during an interview with Reuters.

Food insecurity is believed to weaken scholastic achievement in two ways: by depriving the body of the necessary nutrients for normal mental and physical development, and by creating an environment of stress and insecurity that diminishes a child’s desire to attend school and succeed in class.

In the current study, Roustit and her colleagues at the Research Group on the Social Determinants of Health and Healthcare in Paris, France, analyzed surveys given to 2,346 public high school students in Quebec, Canada, along with 2,000 of their parents.

The questionnaires asked about academic performance and socioeconomic status.  The survey also included several questions about food security at home, such as whether a lack of money kept the family from eating enough, or from purchasing an adequate variety of foods.

Just over 11 percent of teens reported food insecurity at home, the researchers said.  Of those, two-thirds attended schools that provided free or low-cost breakfast, lunch or snacks.  This allowed the researchers to examine the impact the meals programs had on academic performance.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that food insecurity was strongly associated with academic problems.  However, teens with home food insecurity performed dramatically better academically if their school offered meal assistance.

These adolescents were much less likely to be held back a year, or to score poorly in language testing or to rate their overall academic performance as poor.

The data used in the study was obtained during the 1990s, but Roustit said a new survey of Quebec adolescents is now underway.

“We would be able to compare the results of 1999 to 2009 in few years,” she told Reuters.

The current recession has taken a heavy toll on food security within the U.S., with a recent report by the Department of Agriculture finding that nearly 15% of American households faced food insecurity at some point in 2009.  This is the highest level since 1995, when this measurement began being kept.

More than 31 million U.S. school children now receive free or inexpensive lunches through the National School Lunch Program under the federal Child Nutrition Act.  The program cost $9.8 billion in 2009, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Under the 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, while those with incomes between 130 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.

U.S. teachers and school administrators say that children who participate in government food assistance programs exhibit improved behavior, and have fewer absences and better test scores.

The findings were published online November 22, 2010, in the journal Pediatrics.

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