Learn How Nutrition Feeds Academic Success

By Erik Talkin, author of Lulu and the Hunger Monster™

Learn How Nutrition Feeds Academic SuccessI was interested to read an article by Stephen Sawchuk in Education Week, referring to a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which showed how the timing of food stamp availability can affect student’s test scores.

My experience working to feed hungry people for the last 20 years suggests that availability of nutritious food is vital for academic success every day.

Think of an athlete training for a big event. A competitive runner would never step up to the blocks to run a sprint or a marathon without months of careful consideration of nutrition being a key factor to success in running that race.

Taking SATs for college is definitely the intellectual version of preparing for that big race, yet we often just consider that kids need to “make sure they have a good breakfast before attending the test.” Good advice, certainly, but what about the weeks and months leading up to the test?

The study Sawchunk wrote about shows that youth who are food insecure are likely to score significantly worse on SAT test than those who come from food secure households. That situation could affect the rest of their lives.

Food insecurity means that a family does not have enough money to provide sufficient nutritious food for the entire month. Families can become food insecure for part of the month—when all the bills are paid, but they are waiting for another paycheck and surviving on little money for food. Another situation is where a problem—like medical bills or broken car—mean there is suddenly less money for food. At the more extreme end are families that are living in poverty and face food insecurity month in and month out.

The problem with food insecurity is its invisible nature. SNAP or food stamps are hard to get and are not a magic solution to the food insecurity problems of millions of Americans. As caregivers or teachers, we often go to other possible problem areas before we consider the power of insufficient healthy food to affect mood and focus. We know that kids (and ourselves) typically need a snack to get our brains charged up to do homework or take on an arduous mental task. It rarely occurs to adults who have easy access to food that the problem might be more challenging than one that can be remedied with some apple slices and peanut butter.

How Do I Find Out If Food Insecurity Is a Problem?

The USDA has a nine-question questionnaire that is designed for youth ages 12 and older to answer so that you can assess whether they are food insecure. As with all data-led questionnaires, there are twice as many questions as the average person feels like answering. It’s worth it, though, to assess a student’s food security and determine whether it is high, marginal, low, or very low, which is useful information for any teacher or caregiver.

It is asking a lot for a food insecure young person to answer all of these questions and to answer them truthfully, however. So even if you don’t want to use the full form, you can still get a broad picture of the situation by using a few of the questions in conversation, such as, “Did you have to skip a meal because there wasn’t enough money for food?” or “Has the size of your meal been cut because there wasn’t enough money for food?” or “Do you think you are eating less healthy food because there isn’t enough money for it?”

What Do I Do Next?

Once you’ve identified students who need supports, help connect them with your local free food distribution centers. If you aren’t sure where those are, you can call your local 211/311 or go to Feeding America’s ‘Find your local food bank’ page (link in the resources below) to identify pantries where students can get food.


Whatever approach you take, as ‘coach’ for your student’s academic success, if you take into account providing a high level of ongoing food security for your ‘team,’ you will have conquered a big obstacle on the route to success!


Self-Administered Food Security Survey Module for Youth Ages 12 and Older

Find your Local Food Bank

NBER: Hungry for Success? SNAP timing, high-stakes exam performance and college attendance

Erik TalkinErik Talkin is also a writer and filmmaker and has served as a principal in two production companies. His short film The Gallery, starring Helena Bonham Carter, was selected for the London Film Festival. He has won an International Television Association Award for writing and directing educational drama, and his theatrical work has been produced on the London Fringe. Erik lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Lulu and the Hunger MonsterErik is the author of Lulu and the Hunger Monster.

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