Food is critical part of academic achievement

Researchers have long highlighted links between academic achievement and food, noting that hunger eventually manifests as cognitive issues. Newer studies show such negative outcomes aren’t problems that appear years down the road.

Hunger negatively impacts a child’s ability to learn and achieve, increases the likelihood of behavioral issues and slows development of social skills. Multiple studies indicate hungry children grow into adults who are less likely to reach their full potential. It’s why the nation invests in nutritious school meals and provides food assistance to the most vulnerable. It’s also why communities support food pantries and other food programs to bridge local gaps.

But a newer study completed by scholars at the University of South Carolina and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh shows the detrimental effects of hunger are not only devastating, but immediate. Test scores of low-income children decline monthly as food assistance runs low.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, represents about 80 percent of the modern farm bill, which will come before Congress again next year.

The budget proposed by the Trump administration calls for massive cuts — $116 billion over a decade — by shifting funding of SNAP to the states.

Food - A Mount Vernon farmer’s market vendor advertises acceptance of SNAP benefits in this 2012 file photo.
A Mount Vernon farmer’s market vendor advertises acceptance of SNAP benefits in this 2012 file photo. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

The proposal also eliminates about $29 billion from crop insurance programs and $6 billion from conservation programs during the same time period, both of which will have a direct and likely negative impact on American food producers.

Last year in Iowa, about 381,000 people received $509 million in food assistance. Nationally, 44 million Americans received more than $66.5 billion. And while the overall numbers are large, food assistance provides Iowans an average of $230 per month, or $1.16 per meal. Even so, Iowa’s ongoing fiscal issues make it unlikely the state will be able to absorb the federal shortfall.

And thanks to stagnant wages combined with higher costs of living, need for food assistance is growing. Iowa families are finding it more and more difficult to meet the demands of increasing housing costs and utilities while continuing to adequately feed their families. Four percent of Iowans received food assistance in 2000, compared to about 12 percent now. Many of those who rely on help are children.

Presidential budget proposals rarely survive congressional debate, but any decrease to food assistance will be detrimental to Iowa’s children at a time when the state is scrambling to establish a young and skilled workforce. That’s because at current SNAP funding levels, nearly 50 percent of participating families run out of resources before the end of the month. Barring help from local stopgap measures, students who rely on SNAP already experience an academic achievement drop each month.

The Trump administration’s proposals would decrease SNAP funding by about 30 percent, but House Republicans have proposed deeper slashes. They’d like to cut SNAP by 42 percent between 2023 and 2027, dropping about 7 million families from the program in the first year alone.

U.S. Rep. Steve King, who represents western Iowa, wants cuts to family planning and food stamps to fund a southern border wall. It’s a foolhardy plan that simultaneously guarantees more children are born into poverty, and kept there.

A better approach, one that can unite the parties, is to reach for common ground, science-based solutions.

Links between academic achievement and food access are heavily researched; the science is solid. Research also concludes, and both parties agree, that education is key to lifting families out of poverty. So we need to connect the dots and acknowledge that issues like poverty, hunger, illness and violence are too often barriers that prevent young people from attaining the high school diploma, vocational certificate or higher education degree needed to move forward.

Constant focus on educational outcomes — otherwise known as teaching to a test and creating policy decisions based on test scores — hasn’t produced good results. It has, however, increased achievement gaps along socio-economic lines. Success comes when children have an equitable playing field marked by access to high-quality preschool, after-school programs, health care, stable housing and, yes, nutritious food.

If Iowans are serious about producing a highly skilled, world-class workforce to boost economic development, it’s imperative that we build a foundation that supports our youth. Our pay-to-play educational system is hindering opportunity. Public investment works best when it targets people.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Oct. 8, 2017. Photo credit: Cliff Jette/The Gazette