How important is nutrition to academic success?

| Author: Eric Baerren | Media Contact: Aaron Mills

Michigan lawmakers approved providing free breakfasts and lunches to every public school student during the 2023-24 school year. In September, a bill was introduced to make that program permanent.

Sharon Kukla-Acevedo, a faculty member in the School of Politics, Society, Justice and Public Service shared her insights on what benefit this might provide.

Q. How many children in Michigan are believed to live in food insecurity?

The latest data suggests that about 282,000 Michigan children experienced food insecurity in 2021. (About 13.1 percent of Michigan children.)

It’s really important to know that this is probably an underestimate. Individuals cycle in and out of food insecurity all of the time, so we likely only observe a portion of the total at any given point in time. 

Q. Is there a connection between hunger and academic performance?

Yes, absolutely. Students who are chronically hungry tend to earn poorer grades, lower test scores, and have worse graduation outcomes and postsecondary outcomes. As we all know, it is difficult to focus when you are hungry. But, in addition to difficulty focusing, student hunger is associated with higher rates of behavior challenges, suspensions and school absence rates than students who are food sufficient.

Hunger is especially detrimental in early development. Poor dietary patterns in the first five years of life can impair a child’s learning ability and school readiness. Luckily, the opposite is also true – that diets rich in whole fruits, grains and vegetables are associated with better cognitive function and school readiness in early childhood.

Q. Why are universal meals so important for academic achievement?

Roughly 30 percent of the nation’s school-aged children benefit from the school meals program (National School Lunch program plus School Breakfast Program). For many of these students, the school meals program provides up to half of their caloric intake. It is easy to see, then, why the program can have such big impacts on students. But the problem is that many students who qualify for the program don’t participate, primarily due to the negative stigma (students don’t want to advertise the fact that their families qualify for federal assistance).

That is why universal meal programs, such as the one operating in Michigan for the 2023-24 school year, are so important for reaching the students that are most in need. Removing the stigma automatically improves the reach of the programs. Higher participation rates can mean an immediate academic performance boost and improvements in long-term health, economic and social wellbeing.

Q. What is the connection between missed meals, schooling and health later in life?

Increased access to nutritious food is associated with better education outcomes (attendance, behavior, grades, test performance, graduation rates).

Education, and especially high school graduation, benefits individuals’ long-term health. It has been associated with reducing the risk of later life chronic health conditions and increasing life expectancy. Further, these long-term health benefits may be particularly strong among individuals belonging to minoritized groups.

Q. For every dollar of state investment, do we know the dollar return on investment?

Universal meal programs are cost effective. Improving the quality of children’s food is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve attendance rates in schools, for example.

More generally, though, the return on investment comes in the form of short-term academic gains, and long-term health and economic benefits. Universal meal programs are associated with decreased diet-related diseases, obesity and improved overall mental and physical wellbeing. The programs are also associated with economic benefits, such as increased labor market attachment and higher income over the life course.

About Sharon Kukla-Acevedo

Sharon Kukla-AcevedoSharon Kukla-Acevedo is a faculty member in the School of Politics, Society, Justice and Public Service. She received her doctorate in public administration from the University of Kentucky. Her research interests include school finance and the economics of education.

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