Written by Alexa Kristensen, Grant Writing and Development Intern
When students have access to food, their academic performance improves. While this shouldn’t surprise anyone—healthy food promotes healthy brain activity—it should beg the question: What emerges when students experience food (in)security? How can we ensure equitable distribution of healthy foods?
The CDC confirms two realities about food and education: first, food insecure students are more likely to have lower grades. Second, students participating in school food programs benefit from improved test scores, reduced absenteeism, and increased memory capacity. This, when taken with revelations about the United States’ inadequacies when responding to a pandemic, casts new light on the present limitations of our food systems.
Since April 2020, the LA Times reports that nearly 265,000 people applied for CalFresh Programs, paralleling the soaring demand at local food banks. In a similar vein, the Brookings Institution writes that 16% of children are not eating enough during the pandemic, a rate that far exceeds previous findings about food insecure households. These kids, now unable to use school food programs, must grapple with food shortage while attending new kinds of schooling. With more people to feed for more hours of the day, households struggle.
And yet crops ready for harvest went to waste with the absence of corporate buyers, a reality made grimmer by reports that nearly 38.3% of United States citizens now experience moderate-to-high levels of food insecurity. The United States has food. It just isn’t going to those who need it.
Food and education enjoy a causal relationship. In an effort to investigate this dynamic further, a 2013 Australian study assessed the presence of community gardens on the overall health of participating cities, which had experienced worsened population health as green spaces declined in the area. The study found that not only did the school sites with community gardens use the food in their lunch-bars, but that teachers used almost 95.4% of produced food for educational purposes. Additionally, the schools allowed students to take excess food home to their families, maximizing food intake outside the classroom.
Schools are an important avenue for responding to food injustice. Prior studies concluded that experiences at school affect habits at home: children, with more knowledge about different kinds of fruits and vegetables, were more likely to consume them, and were eager to share their knowledge with parents and siblings, altering long-term habits. Not only that, but the presence of community gardens meant that students had the means to bring theory to action.
Community gardens offer an affordable, short-term solution to the effects of rapid urbanization and industrial food production, which often flatten agro-diversity and diminish the types of readily available food.
More importantly, community gardens allow for greater food sovereignty. Not only do these gardens educate, they create the conditions to produce, consume, and redistribute food outside the wasteful and unjust confines of big agribusiness—confines that let entire crops go to waste as a nation goes hungry.