Policymakers need to tackle food insecurity so children can “focus on their education,” says study
22 Mar 2023 --- More persistent and severe household food insecurity in India has been linked to lower children’s educational outcomes in years at school, math and vocabulary test scores. The researchers found fewer than half of surveyed households were food secure, although food security in homes increased from 28.5% in 2009 to 43.5% in 2016.
The study found a slight increase in mild and moderate or severe food insecurity between 2013 and 2016. Household sociodemographic characteristics slightly reduced the negative association between food insecurity and children’s educational outcomes.
“Our study highlighted that food insecurity should be a unique consideration to addressing children’s educational outcomes,” lead author Dr. Thomas Argaw, post-doctoral research associate at Lancaster University, UK, tells NutritionInsight.
“The study alerts stakeholders, including federal and local governments and non-governmental organizations directly or indirectly involved in addressing food insecurity, to an important issue. We hope with an integrated effort, these stakeholders can make sure children will not have to experience food insecurity.”
Lower educational outcomes
Education outcomes were measured when children were 8, 12 and 15 years old. The researchers compared the average scores in vocabulary and math tests with test scores of children from food-secure and insecure households.
They also examined how many school years children completed in food insecure households compared to children in food secure families.
Children from households with persistent food insecurity completed 0.19 fewer years of education than children from food secure households. They also had lower test scores, at 0.15 standard deviations for vocabulary and 0.17 for math.
Moderate or severe food insecurity was associated with completing 0.22 fewer years of education and lower test scores of 0.13 standard deviations for vocabulary and math.
“These values may seem to be small in magnitude. However, previous research shows that the average effect of educational interventions in the Global South to improve learning does not often exceed 0.10 standard deviation. This is considered a strong effect,” explains Argaw.
Measuring food insecurity
The research, published in the Journal of Nutrition, is based on data from 2009, 2012 and 2016 of the Young Lives survey for India, which follows the same children over time. Over 1,800 households participated in each round of analysis.
Argaw explains: “The study looked at food insecurity that lasts over a long period, in months/years (persistent) and an experience of food insecurity that limits the frequency and size of meal consumed, whether it lasts throughout the day and night (severe).”
“This is an advancement over previous work because it explores both the concurrent (severity) and chronic (persistence) of food insecurity simultaneously. It further gauges severity in its different forms (mild, moderate, severe) which otherwise were scant or lacking from previous research.”
Moreover, he adds that food insecurity research often focuses on young children, adults and overall household outcomes. The current study included older kids and adolescents, known as the “forgotten population.”
Another study demonstrated that good heart health in childhood might lead to better cognitive health later. Moreover, by making nutritious meals more accessible to families, a study found a significant increase in children’s healthy consumption patterns.
Children are the future
The study’s findings can be used as a starting point to identify relevant social protection programs that can address children’s experiences of food insecurity and improve educational outcomes, notes Argaw.
“We say children are the future and education is the key to open doors. Therefore, we should proactively look for options that can reduce the burden of food insecurity on children and help them focus on their education.”
He adds: “Tackling food insecurity as early as possible is important. Experiencing food insecurity can follow children across their educational trajectories, potentially impair their future potential.”
“Investment in children’s food security also amounts to an investment in human capital development, with potential long-term economic benefits, making this an important investment in India’s economic future too.”
He suggests that social protection programs could be built upon to reduce food insecurity and improve educational outcomes, for example, by expanding school lunch programs to older children or including breakfast options.
Limitations and next steps
As food insecurity was measured at the household level, the study cannot account for household variations.
“The information on food insecurity is derived from an adult who was asked to report a household’s experience of food insecurity,” adds Argaw. “Children were not directly asked to report their own experience and not everyone in the household will have the same experience.”
Argaw explains that he leads several extensions using the same data source. New research includes a study exploring whether or not this relationship holds in other countries, for example, Ethiopia, Peru and Vietnam.
“One of the reasons we believe food insecurity affects children’s educational performance is due to its effect on children’s social interactions (relationships). We are extending our study to explore the association between food insecurity and children’s socioemotional skills.”
By Jolanda van Hal
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