Food insecurity, defined as limited access to sufficient safe and nutritious food at home, negatively impacts the learning ability of adolescents in India, according to a new study.
For the study, researchers from the U.K. and India investigated inequalities in learning achievements at 12 years by examining test scores of 2,000 children in India. They then looked at whether food insecurity at home at the ages of 5, 8, and 12 was linked to lower test scores at age 12.
About 47 percent of the children in the study had experienced household food insecurity, including skipping meals, eating less when needed, and families not having enough money to put food on the table at some stage during the observation period, according to the study’s findings.
Researchers also found that 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.
According to the researchers, food insecurity at all ages negatively affected learning. The data showed lower scores in vocabulary, reading, math, local language (Telugu), and English in early adolescence.
Children who suffered food insecurity at age 5 or chronic food insecurity had the lowest scores across all outcomes, according to the study’s findings. Early and chronic food insecurity were the most consistent predictor of impaired cognitive skills at 12 years, particularly in reading and vocabulary development, the researchers noted.
Food insecurity in mid-childhood and early adolescence were associated with impaired ability in math and English.
These differences by subject suggest that the influence of food insecurity is not universal throughout childhood, the researchers add.
For subjects such as reading and vocabulary, establishing foundational skills early on is very important. Early life food insecurity may disrupt building these baseline skills.
For subjects such as math, where learning at one level builds directly upon learning at the previous level, food insecurity at any time may derail current and future learning.
Through lower learning levels, food insecurity during childhood can have ripple effects for future earnings and health, which matters both for individuals and for the economic development of the country overall, the researchers reported.
“Our findings really highlight how even very early experiences of food insecurity can have a lasting impact on outcomes across the life course,” said Dr. Jasmine Fledderjohann of Lancaster University’s Sociology Department.
The study was published in the Economics of Education Review journal.
Source: Lancaster University