Want to curb juvenile delinquency and prevent incarceration? Try fruits and vegetables.
Too often efforts to keep kids in school and out of jail fail to consider the link between nutrition and behavior. Programs designed to prevent juvenile delinquency, or rehabilitate offenders, tend to focus correcting problem behaviors and pay little attention to what kids are eating.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the federal office which supports state and local efforts to reduce youth crime, identifies a number of programs as “effective” or “promising.” Of the 249 programs identified, only one includes nutrition and physical activity as program components.
When the relationship between food and behavior is considered, this omission is glaring.
Several studies have found that poor nutrition in childhood can lead to the externalization of aggressive, antisocial, and hyperactive behaviors in adolescence.
To explore this linkage, researchers at the University of Oxford conducted an experiment of male inmates at a juvenile detention facility. In this double-blind study one group of participants was given a nutritional supplement, as an analogue for a better diet, and the other group a placebo. Participants who received extra nutrients ended up committing 26 percent fewer offenses in detention, and 37 percent fewer serious or violent offenses.
These findings are relatively new compared to longstanding research, which establishes a direct link between nutrition and brain health. The brain requires a certain combination of vitamins and nutrients to function. Therefore, when children experience hunger, or eat a diet full of processed foods and devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables, their cognitive functions are impaired.
Impaired cognitive function not only makes learning difficult, but also predisposes children to externalizing the behaviors associated with delinquency.
Since nutrition is fundamental for mental health, shouldn’t we be thinking about what at-risk youth are eating?
Over 1 million Americans under the age of 18 were arrested in 2014. That same year, the average daily population in juvenile detention facilities nationwide was nearly 60,000, according to the OJJDP.
In 2015, there were 6.4 million children living in food-insecure households, according to the Economic Research Service at the United States Department of Agriculture.
It is safe to assume there was overlap between these two populations – juvenile offenders and food insecure children.
Children in food insecure homes likely live in communities with high levels of policing and arrests, where they might witness substance abuse and violence, and attend poorly performing schools. All of these factors place youth at risk for incarceration, and yet the nutrition piece is rarely discussed.
Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that Americans of all income levels have developed a generally unhealthy relationship to food.
Food is one of the most basic necessities; but due to the rise of agricultural technology and mass production, we see a decline in food literacy across the board. Convenience has replaced our connection to food to the point that, even in a well-stocked grocery store, fresh fruits and vegetables account for only fraction of the food sold.
This market saturation of high-calorie, nutrient-deficient foods is particularly pervasive in low-income communities.
So perhaps when we ask what led those 1 million juveniles to commit an offense in 2014, we must also ask were they experiencing food insecurity? How many sugary drinks did they consume in a day? Were they eating snack foods with dyes and additives? How many servings of fruits and vegetables did they eat each week?
Ignoring food means ignoring a fundamental necessity for life, which has serious implications for mental and physical health.
In order to provide American youth with opportunities for life-long success and stability, we must refocus on food. Who has access to food, and to what kinds, is an incredibly vital question – one that advocates for at-risk youth should be asking.
Gabrielle Tilley is a graduate student of public policy and a passionate advocate for change. Prior to her candidacy for Master of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, Gabby served two AmeriCorps VISTA terms with the Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps. She wrote this story as part of USC’s Media for Policy Change course.