In 1995 a Tufts University study was published titled The Link between Nutrition and Cognitive Development in Children. The purpose was to broaden public awareness about the known relationship between nutrition and cognitive development, and to enable policymakers to incorporate this knowledge into public policies which protect vulnerable youngsters.
The introduction to the study's report was written by Dr. Ernesto Pollitt who was the professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Davis. According to Dr. Pollitt, "We have now learned that even moderate undernutrition, the type seen most frequently in the United States, can have lasting effects on the cognitive development of children. Inadequate nutrition is a major cause of impaired cognitive development, and is associated with increased educational failure among impoverished children." Research findings, according to Dr. Pollitt, "…give us a much clearer understanding of how children are harmed by undernutrition, and how we can help them. The challenge now is to incorporate this new knowledge into programs and policies which improve the nutritional status and cognitive development of our most vulnerable youngsters".
Dr. J. Larry Brown was director of the Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy at the Tufts University School of Nutrition at the time of the study. Dr. Brown pointed out that the existing body of research showed a clear threat to the intellectual development of children who did not receive adequate nutrition. According to Dr. Brown, "It is now known that from the moment of conception onward, inadequate nutrition threatens the behavioral and cognitive development of young children. Not surprisingly, children who suffer from inadequate nutrition also typically suffer from a range of other environmental insults associated with poverty. Poor housing, inadequate healthcare, unemployment and weakened family and community support systems all interact with undernutrition to impede the child's healthy development."
The study's outline of results was informative but disturbing. "New findings about child nutrition and cognitive development indicate that undernourished children are typically fatigued and uninterested in their social developments. Such children are less likely to establish relationships or to explore and learn from their surroundings. Undernourished children are also more susceptible to illness and, thus, more likely to be absent from school. These factors result in the loss of opportunities for undernourished children and the loss of contributions to society. An overview of research reveals that children in the United States suffer a mild to moderate degree of malnourishment associated with poverty. A combination of environmental insults and undernutrition has been shown to result in growth retardation and developmental delays."
On a positive note, the study determined that, "Unless irreparable physiological damage has occurred, improvements in environment to nutrition can rectify the developmental effects to which a young child is exposed".
On January 8, 1964, in his first State of the Union speech, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a "War on Poverty" (a situation in which families or individuals are considered to be lacking the resources to meet the basic needs for healthy living; having insufficient income to provide the food, shelter and clothing needed to preserve health). The idea was to reduce rates of poverty and improve living standards. However, Americans have allowed poverty to fall off the national agenda with the poverty rate remaining steady since the 1970s.
The Children's Hunger Project program is specifically aimed at elementary school students who are experiencing critical periods of growth and development. Research conducted by the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Brandeis University indicates that even mild under-nutrition may lead to reductions in physical growth and impaired brain function. Children who experience hunger have higher levels of chronic illness, anxiety, depression and behavioral problems.
In the April, 2006 issue of The Journal of Nutrition of the American Society for Nutrition, a study was discussed in which it stated that household food insecurity is associated with multiple adverse outcomes in children and adolescents, including poor school performance and academic delays, poor social functioning and behavior problems.
The lack of adequate nutrition affects the cognitive and behavioral development of children. Child development is the manner in which children attain skills in memory, cognition, language, motor ability, social interaction, behavior and perception. Food insecure low income households are more likely to experience irritability, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating compared to other children. Research has shown that food insecurity was associated with grade repetition, absenteeism, tardiness, anxiety, aggression, poor mathematics scores, psychosocial dysfunction and difficulty with social interaction among 6 to 12 year old children. Food insecurity has also shown to be associated with suicide and depressive disorders among 15 to 16 year old children after controlling for income and other factors.
In December, 2009 Craig Gundersen, Brent Kreider and John Pepper published a working paper, The Impact of the National School Lunch Program on Child Health, in which it was noted that children receiving free or reduced-price school lunches through the national school lunch program (NSLP) often have worse health outcomes on average than observationally similar children who do not participate, especially in the case of food insecurity. They further concluded that NSLP reduces poor health, reduces food insecurity, and reduces obesity.
In the November, 2010 issue of Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, an article Food Insecurity: Could School Food Supplementation Help Break Cycles of Intergenerational Transmission of Social Inequalities? showed that household food insecurity, which was linked to the indicators of family socioeconomic status, was strongly associated with the indicators of scholastic difficulties. This association disappeared for adolescents who benefited from food supplementation programs in schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods.