Tag Archives: learning


How Hunger Affects Early Childhood Development


When discussing why American children are failing in school, one should start by asking what they had to eat outside of it. Kids going to school hungry is not a new phenomenon in this country, but much the like rich/poor divide, it is increasing. What is surprising is not the fact that hunger affects early childhood development adversely, but that it is becoming a a growing health crisis in the United States. Child hunger is an issue that affects urban, suburban, and rural communities, with studies showing that teachers are increasingly seeing children that are too hungry to learn in the classroom. Understanding how hunger affects early childhood development, and  how it affects learning overall can help give clarity to the emphasis needed to address poverty in this country and abroad.

It is difficult for anyone, especially children, to focus cognitively if they are hungry. As Ernest Mendes, P.h.D. points out in his book, “Empty the Cup…Before You Fill It Up“, you don’t have to look further than Abraham Maslow’s motivation theory and hierarchy of needs.

Basic needs must be met before growth needs will be pursued. Safety and a sense of belong come before cognitive needs…When lower level needs are not met first, a person will seek to meet those before the cognitive ones.”

Grumbling tummies are included in these lower level needs. Food deprivation for children living in poverty can often induce stress and affect a child’s ability to focus in a classroom environment. 30-40 years after Maslow’s study, “brain science has observed changes in the brain under stressful and non-safe circumstances versus healthy challenge and low threat environments.”

The effects of child poverty have been a focus for pediatricians throughout the country who are advocating for better awareness of the issue. Dr. Bernard Dreyer, a Professor of pediatrics at New York University (NYU) was recently interviewed on NBC News to discuss some of the problems he has seen arise from child poverty. Having worked with low-income families for four decades, Dr. Dreyer noted the most significant symptom from child poverty is “toxic stress”, which goes hand in hand with poor language development, poor cognitive development, poor school performance, and so on. When families come in for doctor visits, he often feels obligated to ask if there are nights when the family goes to bed hungry. “The answer is always yes. If I don’t ask it, they don’t tell me those things. It is heartbreaking.”

The chronic problems of  child poverty has led to what Dr. Dreyer calls “nursery school drop outs” where children are so dysfunctional, they are kicked out of the Headstart program. “That’s when it became clear that at 3 or 4 years old, they were already in a situation where their social and emotional development and their language development was so delayed or problematic that they were never going to make it. There was no way they were going to catch up.”

Of course, poverty in America is relative compared to less developed countries. Poverty in India for example, is more concrete. It is very evident impoverished people in India literally do not have food to eat, whereas here in America it is more about a lack of the bare necessities, malnutrition, and other factors that we do not usually  lump together with other developed countries.  In that sense, impoverished American children seem lucky compared to those in other countries, where education is an afterthought and children our deprived of the most basic human needs. That being said, the inability to receive an effective education is only underscored by the state of child poverty both in America and abroad. Regardless of location, child poverty and hunger affect early childhood development, inhibiting cognitive and social developments that are crucial for learning and growing in this world.



The Urban Garden Movement


I admit, initially I had not given much thought to urban gardening, much less as a tool to educate kids and unite communities. The very notion of an urban garden movement is hard to fathom, we do not associate farming and cities naturally. However, my own notions began to change after watching Stephen Ritz present a Ted Talk. Ritz, a teacher/administrator and figurehead of the Green Bronx Machine, has found a way to teach students science and technology in one of the most disenfranchised communities in the nation by gardening.

Despite the destitution associated with the Bronx community, Stephen Ritz is cultivating hope and success through his urban gardening classroom. Very similar in manner to New York City’s famed origins of graffiti and hip hop, Ritz’s emphasis is to take what is around him and make it beautiful. Making something out of what is societally percieved “nothing”, Ritz encourages students, who predominantly comes from lower income families, to learn how to care and nurture for the plants they grow in his classroom. In a community that has a lack of access to affordable fresh greens, these students grow their own food and are able to feed their own school, bring home to families, and provide as a service to customers.

This educational approach is dynamic in nature. In order for the students to have access to gardening, they must learn how to grow their own plants. In so doing, they learn the proper math and science behind growing plants properly while also collaborating and participating freely. Additionally, Ritz’s students also learn to make a living wage as his project doubles as a business exporting and planting the gardens for community participants and on people’s homes. Some of their invitations have brought Ritz and his students to the Hamptons, where they were able to plant beautiful gardens on gorgeous rooftops in what he calls the “new green graffiti.”

It may not seem as viral as Gangnam Style, but urban garden methods are growing more popular and spreading across the nation. Ron Finley, a fellow urban gardening advocate and TED speaker, is attempting to turn urban Los Angeles from a “food desert” to a “food forest”. In a recent article, the Detroit neighborhood of Brightmoor has taken similar efforts to plant food in desolate urban areas and bring the community together. Brightmoor’s farming effort has helped push through Detroit’s urban farming ordinance, according to Detroit City Councilman James Tate. Even Boston is considering an amendment to its laws to permit accessibility to urban farming, which has become increasingly popular in recent years. The urban garden movement is growing on the nation’s interest for a lot of reasons, all of which benefit  and educate our society.

Perhaps Stephen Ritz says it best, as a metaphor for education: “We’re planting all kinds of seeds – academic seeds, cultural seeds, seeds of hope. I call it cultivating minds and harvesting hope.”