Hunger, Obesity and Learning: Making the Connection to Social Justice

April 06, 2010 | Written By:

By Rosa Ramirez, HSC Policy & Outreach Coordinator


Robert Hunter, in his 1904 book, Poverty, wrote that hunger interferes with learning and healthy development and consequently perpetuates the cycle of poverty. More than a hundred years later, child nutrition advocates continue to echo a similar sentiment: hungry children can’t learn. Cognitive and physical difficulties due to hunger can lead to lower levels of education and thus limited opportunities.

It’s hard to imagine hungry children in the United States, especially given our country’s high obesity rates for both adults and children. Janet Poppendieck, author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, poses this question: “When we talk about hungry children, what do we really mean?” She argues that hunger is not only the physical alert from our body that we need food, but is also another way to talk about poverty. 

A child who eats flaming hot cheese snacks and a soda purchased from a corner store on his way to school may not be “hungry” in the traditional sense, but rather may be lacking needed nutrients found in fresh, wholesome food. The child may not be able to afford anything more than sugary drinks and sodium-filled snacks. And even if the child were able to afford something better, other options may not even be available in the neighborhood: 23.5 million Americans don’t have access to a supermarket within a mile of their home. 

As Rochelle Davis has discussed on this blog, many children are facing the dual challenge of obesity and hunger. Low-income communities of color are particularly affected by patterns of disinvestment and a lack of access to healthy foods –- an issue of economics, health, and social justice that can perpetuate both obesity and hunger.  Children from poor families are twice as likely to be obese as children from well-off families (45 percent vs. 22 percent), according to a recent study

Educator Eric Tipler discusses the connection between obesity and poverty in the school environment in his article, “Childhood Obesity is a Social Justice Issue, Too.”  Tipler, a teacher in the D.C. and Virginia area, says that during his time teaching at an inner-city high school, he noted the absence of fruits and vegetables and the prevalence of cookies, pizza, and slushie machines. He writes, “Childhood obesity isn’t just a public health issue, it’s a social justice issue. It disproportionately affects the poor and minorities.” He writes that “obese children are more likely to become impoverished adults, spawning a vicious cycle in which poverty begets obesity, in turn leading to further poverty.” 

Our schools have a unique opportunity to make changes in the cafeteria that will have significant impacts for children’s health and education, providing the nutrition that fuels learning. Providing healthy, nourishing food for children at schools is an important part of addressing childhood obesity and hunger –- and justice.


You can help improve school meals by urging Congress to pass a strong reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. Take action now: Send a letter!

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