The Surprising Link Between Child Hunger and Violent Crime in the U.S.

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

Can the solution to high crime rates be found inside a child’s lunchbox?

That’s part of the argument Khushbu Shah lays out in her recent Mic article, “Want to Reduce Crime in America? Try Giving Kids Better Food.” While the solution to crime in America is obviously more complex than simply providing children with healthy nutrition, Shah brings up an interesting and ultimately important aspect in the prevention of crime, namely how hunger influences violent behavior.

The relationship between hunger and crime lies with impulse control. “It is pretty well known that people who can’t control their impulses commit crimes,” explained Alex R. Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. “But I wanted to go further back and see if childhood nutrition had an affect on impulse control.” In a study Piquero co-authored in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, he found that people who reported recurring hunger during childhood — and subsequently a lack of good nutrition — were more prone to being involved in violent acts as adults.

And it’s not only Piquero and his colleagues who have theorized this relationship — Shah notes two other studies that support a correlation between nutrition and behavior, including a 2009 study by a Dutch research team that found a link between behavioral issues and a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids, of which can be found in nutritious foods such as salmon and eggs. Meanwhile, a 2002 study by Bernard Gesch of Oxford University affirmed that good nutrition can help reduce violent behavior in adults.

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“I think it’s in everybody’s best interest that kids get fed, and get fed as nutritiously as possible,” Piquero said. Behavioral issues aside, other studies have shown that children have a harder time paying attention in class if they’re hungry. “Something as simple as giving healthy food to kids when they are young is going to have so many more benefits that go on throughout the rest of the kids life,” Piquero explained. “And it not only affects the kid, but everyone that kid interacts with.”

And the statistics prove the need for more nutritious meals for kids is there. According to No Kid Hungry, 16.2 million children in the U.S. (that’s 1 in every 5 kids) live in food insecure households, or homes that can’t afford to buy enough nutritious food. Teachers have reported that 3 out of 4 students in their classes come to school hungry, and often it’s only there that they receive a nutritious meal for the day.

In fact, an Albuquerque kindergarten teacher sparked a nation-wide conversation last year about the poverty of U.S. public school students. Sonya Romero-Smith revealed the heartbreaking question she asks her students every morning: “When they first come in my door in the morning, the first thing I do is an inventory of immediate needs: Did you eat? Are you clean?” She went on to tell Babble that she believes, “Our job, as teachers, is to ensure emotional and social well-being as well as academics.”

So could providing children with better nutrition be the key to ending this vicious cycle of violence in the U.S.? Perhaps. As Piquero notes, “If kids are able to pay attention in school, they are going to do well, and this will help them land a good job and avoid other factors that lead to violence behaviors.” And it also means less children in the U.S. will be going to bed hungry every night. A win-win if you ask me.

To find out more about how you can help provide good nutrition to children, please visit No Kid Hungry.

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