The Prejudice of Poverty

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Last week Andre Bauer, the lieutenant governor of South Carolina and a candidate to become the state’s next governor, compared providing government assistance to those in need – including school kids eligible for free or reduced price lunches – to feeding stray animals. He claimed that providing such services only encourage breeding and facilitate the problem.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their version of the facts. Bauer has it completely wrong.

We need to put to rest the idea that the only way those in need will enjoy improved outcomes in life is for them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and do it all on their own – especially when it comes to kids. Our brains don’t grow up and flourish inside a test tube. Given the integrated way in which our brains work, it’s simply wrong to expect hungry kids or kids who aren’t exposed to healthy environments to show up at school ready to learn.

Research is compelling; the brains runs on oxygen, glucose and nutrients. Unless kids get this at home, schools must provide it. Research shows that good nutrition not only keeps kids healthy – it also contributes to better learning. Take a look at just some of the evidence:

• In a large-scale analysis of approximately 1 million students enrolled in New York City schools, researchers examined IQ scores before and after preservatives, dyes, colorings, and artificial flavors were removed from lunch offerings. Prior to the dietary changes, 120,000 of the students were performing two or more grade levels below average. Afterward, the figure dropped to 50,000. Ceci, S. J. (2001).

• In another study, elementary school children were provided with one of three breakfast options: a good breakfast, a fast-food breakfast, or no breakfast. The results replicated previous findings showing that breakfast intake enhances cognitive performance. But the study also showed differential effects based on breakfast type. Children who ate the healthy breakfast frequently demonstrated enhanced spatial memory, improved short-term memory, and better auditory attention. (Fernald L, Ani CC, Grantham-Mcgregor S., 1997)

• Adequate intake of minerals, phytonutrients, enzymes, and vitamins also makes a difference. School age children who received such nutrients over the course of a year behaved better (meaning they gave teachers more “on task time”) and scored higher on achievement tests than their peers who just received placebos. (Grantham-McGregor S, Baker-Henningham H. (2005).

The real takeaway here is that providing kids with healthy meals and other services and supports really can make a difference.

Assumptions that disadvantaged students underperform in school because their parents aren’t educated, their home environments are substandard, or their parents just don’t care only perpetuate the problem because they excuse schools and other adults in kids’ lives from making a difference.

There’s no question that poverty changes the brain, which can negatively affect behavior and student performance. But the brain can also change for the better when kids are exposed to healthy, safe, engaging, and challenging environments.

In thousands of the top performing schools across the country, only those providing nutrition for kids from poverty are meeting or exceeding the standards. Are the governor’s statements suggesting an ignorance of the facts or is it simply prejudice? Let the voters be the judge.

Eric Jensen, author of the new ASCD book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind. He’s been featured as a guest on ASCD’s Whole Child Podcast, and he’s presenting at ASCD’s Annual Conference in San Antonio, Texas.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Let There Be More Light

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