An ecological study of food desert prevalence and 4th grade academic achievement in new york state school districts

J Public Health Res. 2014 Dec 9;3(3):319. doi: 10.4081/jphr.2014.319. eCollection 2014 Dec 2.


Background: This ecological study examines the relationship between food desert prevalence and academic achievement at the school district level.

Design and methods: Sample included 232 suburban and urban school districts in New York State. Multiple open-source databases were merged to obtain: 4(th) grade science, English and math scores, school district demographic composition (NYS Report Card), regional socioeconomic indicators (American Community Survey), school district quality (US Common Core of Data), and food desert data (USDA Food Desert Atlas). Multiple regression models assessed the percentage of variation in achievement scores explained by food desert variables, after controlling for additional predictors.

Results: The proportion of individuals living in food deserts significantly explained 4th grade achievement scores, after accounting for additional predictors. School districts with higher proportions of individuals living in food desert regions demonstrated lower 4th grade achievement across science, English and math.

Conclusions: Food deserts appear to be related to academic achievement at the school district level among urban and suburban regions. Further research is needed to better understand how food access is associated with academic achievement at the individual level. Significance for public healthThe prevalence of food deserts in the United States is of national concern. As poor nutrition in United States children continues to spark debate, food deserts are being evaluated as potential sources of low fruit and vegetable intake and high obesity rates. Cognitive development and IQ have been linked to nutrition patterns, suggesting that children in food desert regions may have a disadvantage academically. This research evaluates if an ecological relationship between food desert prevalence and academic achievement at the school district level can be demonstrated. Results suggest that food desert prevalence may relate to poor academic performance at the school district level. Significant variation in academic achievement among urban and suburban school districts is explained by food desert prevalence, above additional predictors. This research lays the groundwork for future studies at the individual level, with possible implications for community interventions in school districts containing food desert regions.

Keywords: academic achievement; cognitive development; food access; food desert; nutrition.