Resource and Academic Literature Guide: The Impact of Food on Academic Behavior, Attendance, Performance and Attrition

by Alexina Cather, MPH
General Questions about Food and Academic Behavior
  • What specific impact does food have on academic behavior, attendance, performance and attrition? What are the specific biological pathways that drive these behaviors? 
  • Is the evidence clear and convincing that healthy food impacts academics?  If so, shouldn’t we pay more attention? 
  • Can you describe and give specific examples of school systems (and or schools) that are using food as a way to improve education (i.e., behavior, attendance, and performance)
  • What are the current national trends and/or statistics regarding the impact of food in schools and academic institutions across the United States? Europe? Elsewhere? 
  • Where are the major gaps in research examining the impact of food on academic performance, behavior and attendance? 
  • If you had unlimited funding to study the impact food has on academic behavior, attendance, performance and attrition, what would you focus on and why?
Food Insecurity and Hunger in the Classroom
  • It makes complete sense that if a child is hungry, concentration would be diminished. Food insecurity is a pervasive issue in the US, impacting an estimated 11 percent of American families. How does food insecurity impact students in the United States, specifically when it comes to attendance and academic performance? Or education in general?
  • What level of responsibility should school systems and academic institutions assume to ensure their students are fed? How does the age of the child affect the level of responsibility?
  • Studies have shown that young children tend to acquire many of the eating habits and food preferences of parents and caregivers. What responsibility do academic institutions and policy makers have for ensuring children have access to high-quality meals at home? How does this responsibility change as the child progresses through the school system?
  • How does the impact of food insecurity or lack of access to nutritious foods present itself most often in the classroom? Developmentally? What are the short-term and long-term effects?
  • Research demonstrates that students who are “at risk for hunger” are more likely to have attention and behavioral issues and less likely to perform well in school. Some studies have shown that feeding children breakfast alleviates hunger and improves memory and test performance. Does the nutritional content of what children eat at breakfast matter, or will their academic performance improve just by eating something, anything, to “break the fast?”  How do you manage feeding children vs. feeding children with high nutritional quality food? Especially when taking food waste into consideration?
  • Much of the research dealing with the impact of food on the academic performance of elementary school children in the US centers on breakfast, while studies focusing on lunch largely examine trends in food waste, dietary preference and nutritional content. In your opinion, what role does lunch have on academic behavior and performance? Is lunch more or less important than breakfast? Why?
Diet Quality and School-Based Programs
  • Do we know anything about which kinds of foods positively impact behavior? Attendance? Attention? Attrition? If so, what are those foods? How do we get more of those foods into schools?  
  • What are your thoughts on universal school-meal programs? How might feeding all students, regardless of need or household income, impact academic performance, behavior and/or student attendance? Let’s say we do get universal lunch — and it’s what nutritionists and health experts consider poor quality – are we better off feeding nutritionally-poor-quality lunch foods vs. no foods at all? 
  • Research has shown that children with food insecurity are, paradoxically, more likely to be obese. There is also some evidence that students who are food secure and eat at school may be more at risk for obesity. How does obesity impact academic performance, behavior and attendance? How have school meal programs and interventions changed to target obesity?
  • Studies focusing on the nutritional value of packed lunches have found that the it varies and that school-based lunches are generally more nutritious. What impact can a less nutritious lunch have on the academic performance of students who do not qualify for free or reduced-fee lunch, and who bring their meals from home? 
  • Despite the fact that many school systems prohibit the use of reward systems in classrooms, many teachers continue to use food as a reward to motivate their students. What are your thoughts on using food as a motivator in academic settings? What is the long-term impact of using food as a motivator?
  • What is the ideal menu for children to improve academic performance? And if academic performance is so important (e.g., tests) why are we, as educators, not completely focused on food?
  • It seems as if there is a focus on food insecurity and hunger issues, but what about the quality of the food children are eating? 
  • A lot of blame for what kids eat is based on their being picky eaters. How can we change this narrative to ensure that kids are eating nutritious food in school and not wasting fruits and vegetables?
  • Can someone briefly summarize the current nutrition standards for school meals? How do they measure up? Do you find them too strict, too lax? 
  • Proposals were announced in January by the US Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue to give schools more control in creating menus, because schools “know their children best.” These proposals also would allow school nutrition professionals to serve healthy food that matches their student’s preferences. The focus of these proposals was to minimize food waste, but what do you think the impact could be on maintaining the integrity of the current nutrition standards?
  • How does nutrition education play a role in making changes and improving the access and nutritional quality of students’ meals?
  • In the book Kid Food, Bettina Elias Siegel talks about the one treat phenomenon that can ultimately lead to kids’ eating well beyond the daily recommended amount of sugar. I can speak anecdotally about what I have seen sugar to do kids’ behavior and learning, but what does the science about sugar and learning say? How can we draw more attention to the issue of sugar in the classroom, and why are teachers and school staff giving kids candy and sugary treats at all?
  • Cara, you’ve published research on food insecurity on the Rutgers campus. What connections did you find between food insecurity and hunger  and academic success? Are there any policies in place right now to address food insecurity on college campuses? What more can be done?
  • Kevin, you’ve gotten involved in youth nutrition-education and school hydroponic gardens; have you seen gardening impact students’ relationships with food and do you expect to see changes in key performance indicators such as academic performance? If so, how and why? 
Resources focusing on the Impact of Food on Academic Behavior, Attendance, Performance and Attrition for Children and Adolescents in the United States
The Impact of Food Insecurity on Academic Behavior, Attendance, Performance and Attrition
The Impact of Hunger on Function 
The Impact of “Breaking the Fast” on Academic Performance 
The Impact of Lifestyle and Dietary Habits on Academic Behavior, Performance, Attendance and Attrition
The Impact of Obesity on Academic Performance
The Impact of Dietary Quality on Academic Performance and Behavior
Food as a Reward and Extrinsic Motivation on Student Learning and Behavior
Impact of Dietary Supplements and Non-School Based Interventions 
Impact of School-Based Nutrition/Feeding Programs
The Impact of Federal, State and Municipal Policies on Feeding Practices and Dietary Behaviors on Schools (and Students)
Select News Articles on the Impact of Food on Academic Performance, Attendance, Behavior and Attrition

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