Food-deserts and their relationship with academic achievement in school children
Frndak, Seth Edward
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Background: A healthy diet can improve childhood development, cognitive outcomes and academic achievement scores. Food deserts, defined as areas of low access to healthy foods, are characterized by low fruit and vegetable intake, and high obesity rates. Poor academic achievement, therefore, may be related to the prevalence of food deserts. Objective: To determine if there is a relationship between food desert prevalence and academic achievement within school districts. Methods: 232 suburban and urban school districts within New York State were geospatially analyzed for the proportion of individuals living within food desert areas. Multiple open-source databases were merged to obtain: food desert data (USDA Food Desert Atlas), fourth grade achievement scores (NYS Report Card), student weight statistics (NYS Student Weight Status Category Reporting System), regional demographic information (American Community Survey) and school district quality data (US Department of Education: Common Core of Data). Regression models were used to predict obesity rates and academic achievement, after controlling for socioeconomic predictors. Results: After controlling for race, regional education rates and socioeconomic status, the percentage of individuals living within a food desert was not predictive of elementary obesity rates at the school district level. However, the proportion of individuals living within a food desert area did significantly explain fourth grade achievement scores, after controlling for racial composition, socioeconomic composition, school district quality measures, and regional education rates. This was true across all achievement scores: (Math: β = -0.151, ΔR2 = .018, p < .000) (Science: β = -0.116, ΔR2 = .010, p = .010) (English language arts β = -0.158, ΔR2 = .019, p < .000). Interaction effects between low income and the proportion of individuals living within a food desert was also found to significantly predict achievement scores. This finding suggests that school districts with high proportions of individuals at low access to healthy foods and of low income, do report lower achievement scores. Conclusion: Food deserts appear to be important indicators of poor academic achievement in elementary students at the school district level. Poor academic achievement within regions of low income is aggravated by the presence of food deserts. Further research is needed to better understand how access to healthy foods can improve academic achievement in our schools.