Recently, the Food Research & Action Center recognized National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, a day that brings attention to the importance of mental health in child development. Food security strongly influences positive mental health outcomes in children and teens, and schools can ensure that students have access to the nutritious food they need to learn and thrive.

Studies show that food insecurity is correlated with unfavorable mental health and behavioral outcomes among children and teens. For example, food insecurity is associated with apathy, lack of motivation, and lower levels of engagement in the classroom. Children struggling with food insecurity also are more likely to experience anxiety and irritability, and teens face a higher risk of developing depression, bipolar disorder, and suicidal tendencies. Children who come from food-insecure households also are more likely to have impaired social skills, and difficulty forming interpersonal relationships, and are seven times more likely than their peers to be involved in physical altercations.

To minimize these and other negative mental health outcomes associated with food insecurity, schools should ensure that they are maximizing participation in the federal Child Nutrition Programs and other support programs. The School Breakfast Program has been shown to improve student behavior and school attendance rates. Children who eat school breakfast also have reductions in hyperactivity, anxiety, and depression. The rate of disciplinary infractions often increases during the final week of the month (when Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits typically are depleted), but research has found that students are less likely to experience that surge when they attend schools that provide afterschool meals.

The research is clear: hungry children experience many negative mental and behavioral outcomes, but the federal nutrition programs can alleviate these issues. For more information, check out, The Connections Between Food Insecurity, the Federal Child Nutrition Programs, and Student Behavior (pdf).