Panel Paper: Associations Between Early Food Insecurity and Kindergarten School Readiness

Friday, November 7, 2014 : 9:30 AM
Nambe (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Anna D. Johnson and Anna J. Markowitz, Georgetown University
In 2012, 20% of U.S. households with children reported food insecurity at some point in the year, meaning they lacked access to sufficient food for an active, healthy lifestyle. Among food insecure households, nearly half had children who experienced food insecurity directly. Food insecurity across a child’s first 5 years may be particularly harmful for later development because of the rapid brain growth that occurs during this time – growth that is known to be sensitive to environmental inputs or lack thereof.

Despite the prevalence of food insecurity among households with children and the developmental threat it poses, very little research has investigated whether food insecurity across early childhood is related to deficits in key cognitive and social outcomes indicative of readiness for school. Given that disparities in school readiness connote later achievement gaps, identifying whether food insecurity might explain decreased school readiness could illuminate an opportunity for policy intervention to improve short- and longer-term child outcomes.

Prior research has related food insecurity to poorer health among toddlers and increased social and behavioral problems for school-age and adolescent children. Only one study explored associations between food insecurity and young children’s behavioral outcomes, finding a positive link between food insecurity at age 3 and contemporaneous externalizing, internalizing, and inattentive behavior problems. However, the cross-sectional nature of the study and narrow set of outcomes drawn from the preschool year leave unanswered questions about whether food insecurity acrossthe early childhood years matters and if so, for which kindergarten competencies.

Drawing data from the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), this study examines whether food insecurity experienced in infancy, toddlerhood, and preschool is associated with kindergarten language, literacy and math scores, and with hyperactive behavior and conduct problems. The current analysis limits the sample to families with incomes at or below 185% of the federal poverty line who also have complete data on food insecurity and child kindergarten outcomes (N = 2,300 for cognitive outcomes, and N= 1,700 for social outcomes).

Preliminary results from OLS regression models with lagged dependent variables and a rich set of covariates suggest that food insecurity at 9 months is associated with increased kindergarten conduct problems (B=0.18, SE=0.08, p<0.05); food insecurity at 2-years is associated with decreased kindergarten reading (B=-0.14, SE=0.07, p<0.05) and math skills (B=-0.17, SE=0.08, p<0.05); and food insecurity in the preschool year is associated with increased hyperactivity (B=0.18, SE=0.07, p<0.05). Next steps include experimenting with other conceptualizations of severity and duration of food insecurity across the early childhood years.

Although quasi-experimental, this study's use of longitudinal data and robust controls suggests that further exploration of the association between food insecurity and school readiness is warranted. If these patterns obtain across other samples and methods, there are implications for current debates about nutritional assistance policy, as well as discussions around avenues for promoting the development of vulnerable children.