Child Hunger and School Punishment

Children in food-insecure homes may be vulnerable to harmful exclusionary disciplinary responses in school, including suspension and expulsion—as early as preschool.

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Food is one of the most fundamental human needs, and a steady supply is critical for survival and functioning. Still, for many children in the United States, access to sufficient, healthy food is scarce or in serious jeopardy. One report indicates that, in 2018, approximately 15 million children experienced food insecurity, a number that—due to social distancing requirements and economic barriers—has likely only grown during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Food insecurity and associated experiences of hunger can have adverse consequences for child development, including elevations in externalizing behaviors and diverse forms of misconduct. As a result, children in food-insecure homes may be vulnerable to harmful exclusionary disciplinary responses in school, including suspension and expulsion. Such disciplinary responses can be invoked as early as preschool. Approximately 50,000 preschoolers in the US are suspended each year, and nearly 9,000 receive permanent expulsions. While both racial bias and accumulating adversity make children vulnerable to suspension and expulsion, research has yet to examine whether (and why) children in food-insecure homes are more likely to experience these disciplinary measures from a young age.

Recently, my colleague and I analyzed survey data collected from primary caregivers of 6,100 preschool-aged children in 2016 to examine whether household food insecurity might elevate the risk of suspension and expulsion during preschool. We also wanted to know if these disciplinary processes were informed by family resilience, parenting stress, and child mental health. We were particularly interested in examining—for both male and female children—which form of food insecurity was most relevant to preschool suspension/expulsion experiences, as such experiences can trigger downward spirals that catapult children into the school-to-prison pipeline.

We found that preschool-aged children living in households where there was sometimes or often not enough to eat (i.e., households experiencing moderate-to-severe food insecurity) were substantially more likely to experience a suspension or expulsion. Specifically, more than 1 in 4 preschool-aged children with a history of suspension or expulsion had experienced moderate-to-severe household food insecurity. By comparison, only 1 in 20 preschool-aged children with no suspension/expulsion experienced moderate-to-severe household food insecurity.

Moderate-to-severe household food insecurity was most commonly experienced by suspended/expelled male children, with one in three boys affected. Even after adjusting for a number of relevant factors, such as race/ethnicity, parent education, and poverty level, the risk of suspension/expulsion among preschool-aged boys increased more than elevenfold in the presence of moderate-to-severe food insecurity. Importantly, no significant differences emerged by racial group. Additional analyses revealed that much of this association was explained by both parenting stress and child mental health.

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to linger, even as a growing number of schools are opening their doors to in-person learning. The challenges of the “new normal” are overwhelming for everyone. Even so, our findings indicate that children—particularly boys—in food-insecure homes bear a disproportionate punishment burden during the earliest stages of schooling, which in turn may trigger a downward spiral toward future contact with the juvenile justice system.

Efforts to promote health equity and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline must curtail exclusionary forms of punishment during childhood and adolescence. Schools’ overreliance on exclusionary discipline to address the behavioral challenges of children in food-insecure homes constitutes the early criminalization of hunger, and only adds insult to injury for children and families who are most in need of health resources and supports. Alternative approaches rooted in restorative justice should be strongly considered to improve long-term outcomes for these children.

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