Food Insecurity Linked to Poor Academic Performance
Updated: Apr 21
Isn't this a rather unsurprising data point? I mean, sure, when you're hungry, you don't focus as well as when your stomach isn't growling. It's harder to concentrate on your homework, lessons, and studying. Healthy brains make better gains and all that. Any third grader can confidently make this assertion. So, when does an obvious, albeit unfortunate, observation becomes a problem we can no longer ignore?
When 20 to 50 percent of US college students experience food insecurity. When students from food-insecure households are 43 percent less likely than their food-secure counterparts to graduate from college, including with an associate's degree; when 61 percent are less likely to attain a graduate or professional degree. And, when food-insecure students are more likely than their more fortunate peers to report a GPA under 2.5. The fact is, food insecurity is not just associated with but a contributing cause of lower educational attainment.
But Why? Why is it that people with food insecurity are at greater risk of low academic performance? Let's unpack.
The Maslow Disconnect
Back in 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow attempted to classify human needs hierarchically. He proposed that our most basic needs, such as food, air, and water, must be fulfilled before we can focus on less critical ones like self-esteem and love. Most often represented as a pyramid, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs places physiological needs at the base and self-actualization at the top. Thus, our nutrition and safety needs must be met before we can focus on our education needs.
Although 'higher education' finds its way onto Maslow's pyramid, it is the least critical to our survival. Food, on the other hand, is not optional. It is illogical to assume that a brain will be able to focus on higher-order thinking when it is distracted by the warning heralded by the pangs of hunger. Anyone who's attempted to study on an empty stomach can vouch for this.
Your Brain on Sugar
Our brain's on/off switch has no "off." Well, I guess technically it does; it's called "death." The brain is responsible for controlling everything thing the body does—all thought, all movement—every breath and heartbeat, each sense, all the time. It doesn't rest. Ever. When you're asleep, it isn't. In order to function properly, the brain requires a steady, fortified fuel source—that being the foods you eat. This food, this fuel, "directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood."
Not only is a hungry brain a distracted one, but it is also, quite literally, a dejected, sickly one. Low-octane fuel—processed foods high in cholesterol, preservatives, nitrates, and saturated and trans fats—is, in fact, harmful to the brain. Free radicals from fried foods bounce around in our noggin, causing inflammation and oxidative stress. The LDL cholesterol found in heavily processed foods may increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. Sugar is especially nefarious. A diet high in refined sugar such as high fructose corn syrup is linked to memory and cognitive deficiencies. Excess sugar consumption can disrupt certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine, affecting mood, behavior, learning, and memory.
But, you say, these foods, bad though they may be, are still food. This information seems counterintuitive in a blog about food insecurity. Consider this: a 2022 study found that college students with marginal food security were more likely to eat cheap, easy-to-prepare, decidedly unhealthy food due to income restrictions and convenience. This makes sense, right? How many college kids do you know who subsist on a breakfast of ramen and coffee? It's dirt cheap, quick, and provides enough easy-access energy to sustain a body until its next hit. The unsurprising takeaways from the study revealed that, in addition to the negative physical aspect, marginal food security also affected students' mental health and academic performance. "Key themes that emerged included trade-offs, insufficient time, stress and anxiety, self-perception, motivation and not fully participating in … academics."
So, no. An unhealthy diet is scarcely better than no diet at all. In fact, I would argue that eating a diet rich in nitrates, LDL cholesterol, empty carbohydrates, refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup, among other things, is just as bad as the long-term effects of extreme hunger.
These are just a few of the reasons why there's a correlation between low academic achievement and food insecurity. I've not touched on the wealth of data linking food insecurity to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Who can measure the feelings of shame engendered by food insecurity that prevent many students from approaching their peers, instructors, and tutors? This is to say nothing of how comorbidities like poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction heap additional stress on food-insecure college students, driving them further from their goal of graduating.
The battle to end student hunger cannot be won in a day or even a year or ten. It's a siege fought in the trenches by food banks, local charities, and organizations like Student LunchBox, Inc a 501(c)3 nonprofit that donates nutritious meals to food-insecure college students in Los Angeles County. Consider donating your time, money, or any healthy foodstuffs you have lying around your kitchen. Together we can make a difference.
Article By Jennifer Wyman:
Editor and Writer at Student LunchBox: Nonprofit Organization Fighting Food Insecurity Among College Students