Does Household Food Insecurity Affect Cognitive and Social Development of Kindergartners?

Year: 2002

Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Investigator: Harrison, Gail G., and Ame Stormer

Institution: University of California

Project Contact:
Gail G. Harrison, Professor and Chair
UCLA School of Public Health
Department of Community Health Sciences
14-171 Warren Hall
900 Veteran Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90095
Phone: 310-825-3738


This study explored the relationships between household food insecurity and the cognitive performance and social behavior in U.S. children entering kindergarten. Earlier studies have found that hunger is associated with poor school performance, such as more school absences, tardiness, and increased probability of repeating grades. There is also some evidence of compromised social and emotional functioning among adolescents in food-insecure households. The authors focused on children entering kindergarten in order to examine cumulative childhood development prior to schooling. In addition, readiness for school is a powerful predictor of later success and development for children.

The authors used data from the 1998 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of Kindergartners (ECLS-K). The ECLS-K is a nationally representative cluster sample of approximately 20,000 children in both public and private schools. The survey includes the 18 questions used to construct the Federal measure of household food security. The authors examined the links between household food insecurity, teacher- and parent-reported social skills, teacher-reported cognitive ability, and an independent direct assessment of children’s cognitive abilities in math, reading, and general knowledge. These measures constitute an unusually extensive evaluation of children’s cognitive and social skills. Additionally, the authors investigated the associations between household food insecurity and children’s height and weight when they entered kindergarten.

The authors used factor analysis to reduce the cognitive and social data to five summary measures, and multiple linear regression analysis to examine the prediction of these measures by a large number of potential independent variables, including sociodemographic characteristics, school and home environment characteristics, parental and teacher characteristics, day care and preschool experience, and household and child participation in Federal assistance programs.

The study results show that household-level food insecurity is not a significant independent predictor of cognitive performance, whether assessed by teachers or by an independent observer. However, food insecurity is significantly and negatively related to parents’ rating of their children’s emotional state and social interaction skills and to teachers’ rating of children’s social skills. Food insecurity is not a significant independent predictor of short stature, overweight, or underweight among kindergarten children. Physical activity is a significant predicator of overweight status among children. The amount of time spent watching TV on weekends is positively associated with being overweight, while the teacher-rated activity level during free play is negatively associated with being overweight.