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Hunger, Academic Success, and the Hard Bigotry of Indifference

Stephen Krashen letter to
Rethinking Schools:

Since Gerald Coles' "Hunger, academic success,
and the hard bigotry of indifference" (Winter,
2008-9) was accepted for publication, recent
media reports confirm his message: The effects
of hunger and poverty in general are
devastating, we can do something about this,
but there has been little interest in dealing
with these problems.

Several newspapers, including USA Today
(Dec. 19, 2008), recently told us that
researchers have discovered that that children
of poverty lack full brain development in the
part of the brain that is active in problem-
solving, reasoning and creativity.

This conclusion comes from a study showing that
the brains of children of poverty respond more
slowly than those of children from high-income
families in responding to pictures of triangles
mixed with other pictures, apparently because
they are less able block out distractions.

The suggested cure? Scientists quoted in
Science News (Dec. 8, 2008) think
the answer is "proper intervention and
training." In USA Today, one researcher
is quoted as saying that children need
"incredibly intensive interventions to overcome
this kind of difficulty."

Completely missing from the discussion is the
possibility of providing these children with
what is missing in their environment: Better
nutrition, safety, and access to interesting
and comprehensible reading material. Research
discussed by Coles shows this works for
nutrition, and there is plenty of research
showing it works for providing reading

I recommend we take two steps right away: Make
sure Coles' article is read by millions of
people, and adopt a new slogan. I like one
suggested by Susan Ohanian: No Child Left

By Gerald Coles

If you think poverty can damage academic
achievement, you obviously haven't been paying
attention these last eight years. Had you
talked with George W. Bush and suggested that
poverty and academic achievement are connected,
he'd surely have insisted you're partaking in
the "soft bigotry of low expectations." You're
making "excuses" for poor children's academic
problems compared with the greater academic
success of children from affluent homes.
Regardless of their social conditions, "all
children can learn," Bush repeated in speech
after speech on education. Forget poverty! All
that is needed for educational excellence is
direct instruction, "scientifically-based"
prepackaged materials, lots of testing, school
choice, and punishment of "failing schools."
This remarkable brew will transcend the effects
of poverty, or so it was believed by the
president, whose strong faith in the singular
power of this brew allowed him to feel
comfortable repeatedly reducing every area of
the federal budget essential to poor children's
fundamental well-being.

Aiding Bush in this "no excuses" campaign have
been educators and psychologists whose work has
focused narrowly on instruction, cognition, and
brain activity, without a word about social
class conditions impacting children for better
or worse. An example is Sally Shaywitz, a
pediatrician and reading researcher at Yale
University, an author of National Reading Panel
Report (the theoretical underpinning of Bush's
Reading First policy), and a steering committee
member of the 2004 National Educators for Bush.
A major booster of the lockstep, skills-heavy
pathway to literacy, Shaywitz has confidently
asserted that "at last we know the specific
steps a child or adult must take to build and
then reinforce the neural pathways deep within
the brain for skilled reading." Offering "a new
and complete science-based program for reading
problems at any level" and self-described as a
"working scientist who has wrestled with the
conundrum" of reading problems "for more than
two decades," Shaywitz, like similar promoters
of Bush's educational policies, has never seen
poor children's socio-economic conditions as
part of the "conundrum" with which to grapple.

Nonetheless, despite their relentless appeals
to "science" in adjudicating educational
matters, the Bush educational scientists have
clearly disregarded a lot of science that shows
how social class conditions directly influence
academic outcomes. Certainly many poor children
manage to succeed academically, but they do so
while facing onerous forces that, but for the
cruelty of policy makers in this rich nation,
they should never have to confront in the first
place. A graphic example of the effect of these
social class conditions and the cruelty that
generates them is hunger.

Food Insecurity, Hunger, and School Achievement

Approximately 17 percent of American children
live in households defined as "food insecure,"
that is, the families face "difficulty
providing enough food for all its members due
to a lack of resources." For African American
and Latino children, the percentages are
higher: 22 percent and 20 percent respectively.
Troublesome as these numbers are, they likely
underestimate the degree of children's hunger
because, according to the Food Research and
Action Center, "only households experiencing
substantial food insecurity are so classified";
less intense levels are not.

And if these conditions weren't bad enough,
they actually grow worse by the day. With the
economy slumping, a recent CNN poll found that
Americans are spending less on groceries and
are likely to shift to cheaper, poorer quality
food, in order to reduce spending. For poor
families facing food cost increases in the last
year ΓΆ€” such as a rise between 12 and 17 percent
for milk, bread, cheese, rice, pasta, beans,
and peas and a 25 percent increase for eggs ΓΆ€”
the hunger crisis affecting the poor is
evermore acute.

The impact of food insecurity and hunger
becomes evident early in children's lives (for
brevity, I will use the term "food insecurity"
for both terms insofar as the line between
"food insecurity" and "hunger" is commonly non-
existent). Research on young children in
several U.S. cities found that food insecure
children were two thirds more likely to
experience developmental risks in expressive
and receptive language, fine and gross motor
control, social behavior, emotional control,
self-help, and preschool functioning. These
outcomes held even after controlling for
potential confounding variables such as
caregiver's education, employment, and
depressive symptoms. Other data from a study of
1,000 poor families identified associations
between food insecurity and children's behavior
problems, such as temper tantrums, fighting,
sadness, depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

With the start of school, early developmental
problems evolving from food insecurity are
likely to progress into an array of
psychological, behavior, and social skills
difficulties. For example, food insecure
children are more likely to miss more school
days, repeat a grade, see a psychologist, and
be less able to get along with other children.
Not surprisingly, food insecure children are,
in the early grades, also more likely to have
academic problems, particularly in reading and
arithmetic. A longitudinal study found that
food insecurity significantly lowers children's
test scores for word identification, passage
comprehension, and arithmetic tests. Other
studies show similar outcomes. Following a
sample of 21,000 nationally representative
children from kindergarten through 3rd grade,
researchers found that throughout these grades
children in food insecure families at
kindergarten made smaller gains in mathematics
and reading than did children in food secure

Food insecurity need not start at the beginning
of a child's life for its severe effects to
emerge. Research on children who began
kindergarten in food secure homes and at that
time were doing well academically, found that
when the children began experiencing food
insecurity in later grades, their reading
development slowed in contrast to children
whose homes remained food secure. Some good
news is that, conversely, a change from food
insecurity to food security can bring
concomitant improvements: the study also found
that poor reading performance for food insecure
children in the beginning grades was reversed
if the household became food secure by 3rd

Food Insecurity Influences Child Development

The impact of food insecurity on child
development and academic achievement is
complex, with its connections both direct and
indirect. The most direct effect is through
insufficient levels of nutrients, a connection
evident in research on breakfast programs and
nutritional risk.

One such investigation began by calculating
each child's total daily energy by assessing
the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of
nutrients for age and gender and translating
this into the child's energy requirements. With
this assessment, a low-energy diet was defined
as a total daily energy intake of 50 percent or
less than the RDA. In turn, nutritional risk
was estimated by assessing a child's intake
levels of specific nutrients, such as vitamins
(particularly vitamins A, B6, B12, and C),
folate, iron, zinc, and calcium. By these
measures, 30 percent of the children in the
breakfast program had combined low energy and
nutrient intake. The study then focused on this
"low nutrient intake group." Using a "Pediatric
Symptom Checklist," a screening test for
identifying cognitive, emotional, and
behavioral problems, the researchers found that
children who were nutritionally at risk had
"significantly poorer attendance; lower grades,
especially in reading, math, social studies,
and science; poorer attendance; higher rate of
tardiness; and more behavior problems" than
children not at nutritional risk.

However, this study also demonstrated the
developmental and school benefits of
nutritional improvement. Six months after the
start of the breakfast program, students with
initial nutritional deficiencies who
participated regularly in the breakfast program
and showed nutritional improvements ΓΆ€” thereby
decreasing their nutritional risk ΓΆ€” showed
significantly greater improvements in
attendance, academic functioning, and behavior
than children who participated irregularly in
the program and thereby did not decrease their
nutritional risk.

Another breakfast program investigation used a
very different group of children ΓΆ€” those from a
middle-class background, in good health and
free from learning disorders ΓΆ€” to probe the
substantial effects of children's nutritional
makeup on cognitive and academic outcomes. The
children went to school without eating
breakfast, then at the school cafeteria ate
either one of two common U.S. breakfasts ΓΆ€”
nutritious oatmeal or minimally nutritious
ready-to-eat cereal ΓΆ€” or ate no breakfast. An
hour after breakfast time they were tested with
a variety of cognitive assessments. Over the
course of the study, each participant received
all three breakfast conditions, thereby serving
as his or her own control. Test scores showed
that the children who ate oatmeal did better on
a variety of cognitive measures, particularly
in complex visual processing, auditory
attention, spatial memory, and short-term
memory. In contrast, the ready-to-eat cereal
group had poorer scores, with the no-breakfast
group having the poorest.

What occurred biologically that produced these
differences? The researchers underscored
oatmeal's superior amount of protein and fiber
content, slower rate of digestion and longer
energy effect compared with the low fiber,
ready-to-eat cereal. Given these differences,
the cognitive benefits were most likely related
to the "blood glucose response following a
meal," with circulating glucose enhancing
learning and memory, "perhaps through the
synthesis of acetylcholine," a neurotransmitter
that modulates neuronal activity associated
with increased memory and learning strength
(that is, the neurotransmitter enhances some
neuronal activity and suppresses others related
to memory and learning).

Moreover, the researchers hypothesized,
oatmeal's greater amount of fiber and protein
improved cognition because protein increases
levels of the amino acid tyrosine, that in turn
increases the synthesis of the
neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine,
which contribute to alertness, attention, and
memory. In contrast, a minimally nutritious
ready-to-eat cereal with high amounts of fast-
metabolizing carbohydrates and low amounts of
protein increase the amino acid tryptophan,
which raises the level of the neurotransmitter
serotonin, which can reduce memory, alertness,
and cognition.

Other studies have found that nutrient
deficiencies need not be extensive to impact
cognitive and academic outcomes. For example,
iron-deficient children had "greater than twice
the risk of scoring below average in math than
children with normal iron status." Reading
scores too were lower for iron-deficient
children although the differences were not
statistically significant. However, as the
researchers put it, "children with iron
deficiency had a significantly elevated risk
for scoring below average in reading." Iron
deficiency impairs cognition by affecting the
functioning of the neurotransmitter dopamine,
which plays a role in learning, memory, and

Indirect Connections Between Food Insecurity
and Academic Outcome

In addition to direct connections between food
insecurity and behavioral and academic
outcomes, there are indirect associations. Food
insecurity is frequently associated with
familial psychological and emotional stress
that can have dire consequences for children.
Poor heads of households worry about having
enough money to buy sufficient food for their
children and might have to go hungry to ensure
that their children eat enough from the limited
amount available. Food insecurity also means
that parents have to cope with children's
complaints about being hungry. As documented in
a study of over 1,000 poor families, these and
similar stresses can lead to parental anxiety,
depression, and anger that in turn can have
dire emotional consequences for their children,
as reflected in behavior problems, such as
temper tantrums and fighting with other
children, and in emotional states, such as
sadness, depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Research yielding poignant expressions of these
connections asked poor children to talk about
the experience of families with insufficient
food. One child commented, "The children start
looking sad and everything and their parents'
attitudes get worse 'cause the kids get real
hungry and the parents start to get madder and
madder 'cause the kids' beggin'." Describing
parental anxiety, another child said, "They
make those sad faces. They will look crazy and
try to borrow food."

The researchers also found that the emotional
well-being of hungry children can even be
affected in food programs designed to help
them. For example, while hungry children can
benefit nutritionally from a school lunch
program, the school culture in which children
joke about the quality of these lunches can
prompt other students to "make fun" of poor
children who "eat all of their food" in order
to stave off hunger at home. Then there is the
shameful effect poverty and hunger can have on
classroom social relationships. As one child
put it, "The children don't want their friends
to think bad of them or think that they are a
poor family... yeah, a whole lot of people
would take that as an advantage over you... if
he tells the truth [about not having food] in a
class of boys, they will take that to their
advantage" by mocking or shunning him.

Hunger and Food Insecurity: Better Legislation
But Not Enough

As I said at the beginning of this article, if
you talk about the dire effects of poverty on
children's development and learning outcomes,
the Bush administration and its ideologues will
accuse you of encouraging a "culture of
defeatism" and misdirecting attention to
threadbare "conventional nostrums," such as the
belief that government programs are essential
for helping poor children learn. Moreover, says
the Heritage Foundation, a prominent Bush
cheerleading institute, if we want to talk
about food insecurity and hunger, the facts
show that "Contrary to the claims of poverty
advocates, the major dietary problem facing
poor Americans is too much, not too little,
food!" Liberal whiners are propelled by "hunger
hysteria," not facts, say these right-wing
alchemists, who are never at a loss to claim
that night is day.

Nevertheless, the facts of hunger are vivid in
the government programs that assist the poor,
such as the Food Stamps program that serves
about 27 million hungry people each month. The
"hunger hysteria" can be further gauged by the
average benefit for an individual in the
program, which is about $1 per meal, an amount
based on the "Thrifty Food Plan," (TFP) of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This
theoretical diet assumes that a poor household
will get sufficient food and nutrients by
combining their food stamp benefits with 30
percent of their income. However, even USDA
research does not support this assumption,
having found that only 12 percent of poor
households that buy food according to the TFP
get their recommended dietary allowances for 11
key nutrients. At best the TFP provides only
minimal nutrition and in many areas of the
country food costs are so high that families
are unable to purchase all the food included in
the TFP. (While national average of food costs
rose by 4.7 percent from March 2007 to March
'08, the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan rose
over the same period by 5.6 percent. Research
evaluating the effect of the Food Stamp program
found that it reduced, but did not eliminate,
the association between food insecurity and
poor health.

Legislation passed this summer under the "Farm
Bill" will help rectify some of the more
egregious aspects of food insecurity and hunger
(the bill is somewhat misnamed because two
thirds of its funds go to nutritional
programs). It raises the minimum benefit of
monthly food stamp assistance; indexes food
stamp purchasing power to inflation; eliminates
basic deductions that formerly affected a
family's eligibility for food stamps; helps
emergency feeding organizations such as food
banks; and provides free fruits and vegetables
to children in low-income schools.

However, while this legislation does improve
nutritional support for poor families, it is
insufficient for eliminating food insecurity
and hunger. For example, because the standard
family deduction was frozen in 1996 but
inflation continued, a typical working parent
with two children in 2008 receives about $37
less in food stamps each month than she would
have without the 1996 freeze. With the new
legislation, the minimum standard deduction and
indexing for inflation would, in 2009, provide
a typical family of three an additional $4 to
$5 a month in food stamp benefits, an amount
that would rise to $17 a month by 2017.
However, the benefit in 2009 would mean less
than $2 a month for each family member and even
by 2017 would still, in terms of inflation-
adjusted dollars, not allow the family to catch
up to the 1996 food stamps income level.

A forthright look at the empirical evidence of
the impact of food insecurity and hunger on
children reveals the hard bigotry of
indifference that has marked national policy in
recent years. While covering the presidential
primary campaign in poor towns of Pennsylvania,
UK Guardian correspondent Gary Younge, in
conversations with the "desperate" and
"despondent" across the state, heard the
following from Cindy Digga, county community
action advocate, "They can put a man on the
moon but all they can do for poor people is
give out blocks of cheese? Don't you think
America should be able to do better than that?"
Younge concluded, "The U.S. needs to talk about

George W. Bush will no doubt eat Texas-sized
meals back on the ranch, but his legacy
continues, with hunger, especially children's
hunger, increasing across the nation. As one
national food bank director noted in an
interview with USA Today, "I've never seen this
type of demand before. People call us saying,
'In the past I've been a donor. Now I need the
help.'" At food pantries, said another
director, the lines are filled with families
whose children do not have enough to eat. The
Obama presidency offers hope for change,
however, the extent of that change is
uncertain. As Stan Karp wrote in the previous
issue of Rethinking Schools, Obama's "centrist
balancing act" is strongly influenced by
competing interests that span from ordinary
Americans to corporate America. Will Obama take
the needed bold steps to serve the first group
and reverse the Bush policies that served the
second at the expense of the first? For Obama
to do so will require support and pressure:
Americans, especially teachers, will have to
exude more than an "audacity of hope." What is
needed is a nationwide movement that bolsters
and pushes the new administration to create
initiatives that substantially address class
and poverty, of which food insecurity and
hunger are a part. Without such a movement,
pressure from the rich and powerful surely will
truncate such initiatives. Countless teachers
have done and will do praiseworthy work with
poor children, many of whom will do well
academically despite contending daily with the
injurious forces poverty imposes. But the
reality is that without eradicating the
damaging forces of social class, no form of
instruction will be sufficient to ensure that
no poor child is left behind.

Gerald Coles is an Ithaca, N.Y.-based
educational psychologist who has written
extensively on literacy and learning
disabilities. His books include Reading the
Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation and Lies
(Heinemann); Misreading Reading (Heinemann);
and Reading Lessons: The Debate Over Literacy
(Hill & Wang).

— Gerald Coles, with comment by Stephen Krashen
Rethinking Schools


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