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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Does Household Food Security Affect Cognitive and Social Development of Kindergartners?


The development in the last decade of methodology for measuring and scaling household food insecurity and hunger in U.S. populations makes possible systematic examination of the ways in which hunger and food insecurity affect individuals and families. The impact on children has always been of primary concern for policy, advocacy, and science because of the vulnerability of children to long-term developmental sequelae. There is an emerging and rapidly growing literature demonstrating deletrious links between inadequate food and a variety of developmental outcomes for children, including poorer health status, school absenteeism, and emotional and behavioral dysfunction. The research presented here explores the relationship of household food insecurity to children’s well-being in terms of cognitive and social development at kindergarten entry, utilizing a large and representative sample children in the United States. The timing of this evaluation, in the fall of the child’s first school experience, allows a snapshot of a child’s development throughout his/her preschool years relatively independent of the major influence that the school experience will have subsequently.

The data are from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of Kindergartners (ECLS-K), collected in 1998–99 by the National Center for Education Statistics, and comprise 20,929 children attending 1,000 private and public schools. Our results indicate that measures of reading, math, and general knowledge competence were not impacted by household food insecurity independent of other influences, but child emotional and functioning were negatively associated with household food insecurity even when many other relevant variables were controlled for. We also investigated the relationship of household food insecurity to children’s attained growth and found no independent relationship of household food insecurity to height for age or weight for height.

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