The Link Between Healthy Food and Academic Performance

Nutrition is a vital part of a child's development. For children living in poverty, there are obstacles that prevent access to healthy food, which in turn affects their performance in school. 

By Momentous Institute | Nov 05, 2018
Link Between Healthly Food Academic Performance

Nutrition is an important piece of the brain development puzzle. Yet access to healthy food can be a challenge for those living in poverty. Let’s look at the link between the lack of access to proper nutrition and a child’s performance in school.

There are two main reasons that poverty can lead to lower quality nutrition: cost and access.

A 2013 Harvard study found that healthy diets cost approximately $1.50 more per person per day than less healthy diets. This means that eating a diet high in vegetables and healthy proteins costs more than diets rich in processed foods and refined grains. This cost disparity has been on the rise since the mid 2000’s. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand how this would impact a family on a tight budget.

In addition to the rising cost of quality food, many people in the United States also have the problem of access. The USDA Economic Research Service tracks food access in combination with income. Areas with limited access to supermarkets and other sources of healthy, affordable food are called “food deserts”. When families live in food deserts, they may have to travel far to buy healthy food and may grocery shop infrequently or only as needed. Without access to healthy food, these families often turn to fast food or convenience store items, simply because it is all that is available in their community.

These two factors – the rising cost and lack of access to healthy food — make it especially difficult for families living in poverty to provide the best nutrition for children.

How does this affect children in school?

There is a lot of research that outlines the relationship between nutrition and early brain development, including the effects prenatal nutrition has on development. There is a direct link between adequate nutrition and proper brain development. The lack of nutrition and healthy diet options can lead to stunted mental and physical development in young children.

Nutrition also plays a large part in school performance. Children who have diets lacking in fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins tend to have lower test scores than their peers, and hunger can lead to children missing school or having to repeat grades. When children have access to adequate nutrition and healthy food options, there is an overall increase in academic performance, but especially in math and reading. The link between nutrition, development and academic performance is clear, and we know that access to adequate nutrition can be challenging for children living in poverty. Schools and communities that focus on providing free and nutritious meals and snacks for all children can help level the playing field for children who do not have access to such food outside of school. Additionally, teaching children and families about nutrition is important, but it is equally important not to assume that all parents have the resources to provide nutritious food for their children and to not pass judgement on parents who are not able to do so. And with all issues related to deeply rooted systemic issues such as poverty and food deserts, we can continue to work to address the root issues and work on policies and support businesses who will work to eliminate food deserts altogether.