AsianScientist (Apr. 29, 2019) – Scientists in India and the UK warn that food insecurity negatively impacts the learning ability of adolescents in India. They published their results in the journal Economics of Education Review.
The brain consumes a disproportionately large percentage of a person’s daily energy intake, suggesting that cognitive function is tied to nutrition. In countries such as India where many children live below the poverty line, food insecurity—limited access to sufficient safe and nutritious food at home—may reduce children’s learning ability.
To test if this was indeed the case, researchers led by Dr. Sukumar Vellakkal at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani in India, together with colleagues in the UK, assessed inequalities in the learning achievements of 12-year-old children in India by examining test scores. They then looked at whether lower test scores were linked to food insecurity at home.
The researchers found that some 47 percent of children in their study had experienced household food insecurity at some stage during the observation period. 18 percent of the wealthiest of families in the study had also experienced insecurity, highlighting that food insecurity is not exclusively a matter of poverty.
Food insecurity at all ages hampered learning. The data showed lower vocabulary, reading, mathematics, local language (Telugu) and English scores in early adolescence.
Children who suffered food insecurity at age five, or had experienced chronic food insecurity, had the lowest scores across all outcomes. Early and chronic food insecurity were the most consistent predictors of impaired cognitive skills at 12 years, particularly in the areas of reading and vocabulary development.
On the other hand, food insecurity in mid-childhood and early adolescence was associated with impaired ability in mathematics and English. These differences by subject suggest that the influence of food insecurity is not universal throughout childhood.
“These effects are above and beyond factors such as schooling itself, nutrition and children’s individual characteristics. We have accounted for these potential alternative explanations in our models, so the findings are very robust,” said Dr. Elisabetta Aurino of Imperial College, London, UK, a co-author on the study.
The research team hopes their findings will inform educational programs targeting children at a higher risk of food insecurity—in tribal areas, urban slums and remote areas. Based on their findings about five-year-olds, the researchers suggest strengthening food-for-education preschool programs by, for example, including breakfast or take-home rations in vulnerable areas. They also call for improvements in the nutritional content of food received through the public distribution system for households with preschoolers. Furthermore, they recommend strengthening the overall quality of early education.
Source: Lancaster University; Photo: Pexels.
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