On Food Access and School Performance in Kentucky

By Simona Balazs, CEDIK Research Director

Research increasingly supports the importance of food in learning. When children do not have access to food, they are unable to reach their full potential. Children who have limited access to food and experience hunger on a regular basis, lag in academic performance behind their peers in school and tend to stay that way. In general, hunger delays development of cognitive and emotional functions. This affects reading, language, attention, memory and problem-solving capabilities. As students, they lack energy or motivation, have behavior problems, decrease ability to concentrate, experience tiredness and perform poorly academically.  Students “lose the chance to become engaged, productive citizens” (, 2015).  Studies of school-aged children point to a direct link between poor nutrition and lowered school performance (Wood, 2001). This is not just in the case of young children, but also in teens.  One study found that for both younger children and teens, test scores were lower and they were more likely to repeat a grade or miss more school days than children who had access to food (Alaimo & all, 2001).

Children that grow up in households or areas under persistent poverty and have limited access to food are the most affected and with lowest educational attainment. Persistent poverty among children is of particular concern because it may lead to poor health, limited education, and other negative outcomes (Weber & all, 2005). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies an area as persistently poor if 20% or more of their population has lived in poverty over a 30-years period. Approximately 50 counties in Kentucky fall under this category for the 1980-2011 period. Of these, more than 60% are also counties with low educational attainment (more than 25% of residents 25 years old and over had neither a high school diploma nor a GED), as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Persistent Child Poverty and Educational Attainment.

poverty and educationSource: U. S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (2015)

When it comes to access to food, Feeding America’s 2017 “Map the Meal Gap” study shows that almost 16% of people in Kentucky experience food insecurity (which is a measure of a population’s level of access to food) and that food insecurity exists in different pockets of population in every county in Kentucky.

Figure 2 looks at the percent of children living in deep poverty and their access to food measured by the number of stores that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as EBT. The darker the color of the county, the higher the percentage of children in deep poverty; likewise, the bigger the bubble, the higher the number of participant stores.

Figure 2. Percent of Children Living in Poverty and Access to Stores Accepting SNAP.

poverty and snap (002)Source: U. S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (2015)

The map above illustrates that many of the Kentucky counties with more than 20% of children in poverty also have a smaller number of stores accepting SNAP. The children who live in these counties are particularly vulnerable to the lower educational outcomes previously discussed. If we consider the top five counties with the highest percentage of children living in deep poverty and with low access to food, data from Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics (KCEWS) and the USDA shows that those counties rank lower than the state average on other key indicators (Table 1).

Table 1. Kentucky Counties with the Highest Percentage of Children in Poverty.

table_Balazs_blog_post.pngSource: USDA (2015), KCEWS (2015)

Access to food and nutrition are essential building blocks for children to achieve their full academic potential and mental growth, as well as lifelong health and well-being. The effects of limited food access on children early in life and continuing throughout their education will continue to affect their lives as they enter the workforce. Strengthening access to food can help improve children’s school performance, increase educational attainment and improve the quality of tomorrow’s workforce.



Alaimo, K., C. Olson, E. Frongillo, & R Briefel (2001). Food insufficiency, family income, and health in US preschool and school-aged children. American Journal of Public Health,91, 781-786.

Feeding America/Map the Meal Gap, 2017

Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics (KCEWS)

No Kids Hungry Organization

  1. Department of Agriculture (USDA)/Economic Research Service (ERS)

Wolfe P., A. Burkman & K. Streng (2000). The science of nutrition. Educational Leadership Journal

Wood, M. (2001). Studies probe role of minerals in brain function. Agriculture Research, 49.10


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