Nourish Their Bodies, Feed Their Minds, Reduce Youth Crime

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.

Additional studies found that sugary drinks and food additives can produce hyperactivity, mental distress, and conduct problems among adolescents.

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. 

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2 Comments

  1. This article draws attention to a critical problem globally which is the epidemic of obesity and the chronic diseases that are the comorbidities of obesity related to poor diets and sedentary lifestyles. When I toured public schools in Orange County Florida, the food delivered in the school cafeterias is very unhealthy in terms of sugar, flour content and lack of fiber, etc. Of course, on average, student behavior reflects this diet as well as the observable prevalence of obesity across the entire student body. There is also clearly in adequate time spent in physical education time invested in each student per day. Then, I am quite certain that these poorly fed, sedentary students go to homes where the same poor diet is reinforced with little planned, determined exercise regimens. With these two environments combined, we are raising a new generation of fat, unhealthy people who will be a major burden on the health care delivery system regardless of how that system is designed or funded. We can make the Affordable Care Plans more affordable if we place real incentives and maybe even penalties to encourage improved diet and exercise lifestyles for all ages.

    Dr. Michael W. Popejoy, Ph.D., M.P.H. M.H.S.A.

  2. I love this and would love to get involved in any research or opportunities to continue to study this relationship!

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