Commentary | Education

Lessons—When There’s Simply Not Enough Food for Thought

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


When there’s simply not enough food for thought

By Richard Rothstein

What is the most efficient way to raise low-income pupils’ achievement? Is it ending social promotion, increasing accountability or adding more testing?

It could be none of those. Improving nutrition might bring a bigger test-score gain.

Hunger is not as serious here as in countries where children are so nutrient-deprived that brain growth is impeded. The moderate undernutrition found in the United States affects performance, but recovery is usually possible with adequate diet.

Yet if dietary deficiencies persist, learning can suffer. Iron deficiency anemia, which is twice as common in poor as in better-off children, affects cognitive ability. In experiments where pupils got inexpensive vitamin and mineral supplements, test scores rose from that treatment alone.

In another experiment, poor children who got free breakfast at school were compared with children who were eligible but who did not participate. Those with breakfast gained about three percentile points on standardized tests, and attendance also improved, at a price of only about a dollar a day per child. That is more than most education reforms can accomplish at the cost.

One in six children now comes from a family in poverty. With rents rising faster than inflation, poor families have had to reduce food purchases. Deteriorating nutrition may have undermined efforts to improve school performance.

Welfare-to-work policies seemed to make sense as a way to push poor parents to take more responsibility for supporting their children, but have not done much to ease child hunger. In fact, they have often had a perverse effect. Many former welfare recipients are now employed in jobs paying the minimum wage, or close to it, earnings that have not given them the ability to nourish their children: a full-time minimum-wage worker is paid only about $11,000 a year, and a family of four is below the poverty line if earnings are less than about $17,000.

Meanwhile, food stamp use has fallen, partly because many welfare-to-work participants wrongly think they are now ineligible. Although the working poor qualify, public-aid agencies have failed to promote food stamp enrollment. In 1994, 86 percent of eligible children were in families getting stamps, according to Department of Agriculture data; by 1998, the figure was 69 percent.

After ensuring that poor families get food stamps to which they are entitled, officials should set another priority: expanding the school breakfast program.

Eligibility for breakfast is the same as for the better-known federal lunch program: children whose parents have income below 130 percent of the poverty line get free meals; if income is below 185 percent, meals are subsidized. But participation in school breakfast is much lower than in lunch.

Part of the reason is that school officials hesitate to take on yet another responsibility, and even with the best of intentions, breakfast programs are hard to organize. Arranging for adults to supervise breakfast before classes begin is one problem. Another is scheduling buses to bring eligible children, but not others, to school early.

Because of such difficulties, only 35 percent of children in New York State who get lunch also have breakfast. Texas, with 50 percent, and California, with 40 percent, do a little better. Urban participation is often lower: in New York City, the figure is only about 26 percent.

So poor children’s nutrition depends increasingly on charitable groups. America’s Second Harvest (, a national network of food banks, reports that its affiliates now serve eight million children — over half the number in school lunch programs. Many food banks turn away families for lack of supplies.

Private efforts are especially critical right now. Although summer school attendance has grown, school breakfast and lunch programs enroll a much smaller proportion of eligible children than during the regular school year.

Researchers have found that achievement gaps between poor and middle-class students are greater in the summer than in the regular year. While experts can’t say what role undernutrition plays in this extra summertime academic lag, food programs may be one way to address it.

Demands for academic proficiency of poor children enjoy wide support among voters. Yet reducing hunger that causes low test scores may be accomplished more easily than the various unproved educational reforms commonly advanced. A higher minimum wage that helps low-wage parents feed their children could be one important step in ensuring that no child is left behind.

And those wanting to narrow academic gaps can also take matters into their own hands, without relying on government: they can contribute to the nation’s overstressed food banks. This too would amount to real education reform.

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