3 May 2018

Are school lunches harming low-income children in the US?

Alex writes:*

The National School Lunch Program is a federally funded initiative that provided 30.4 million free or low-cost lunches to American children in 2016 at a cost of $13.6 billion. That averages out roughly to $447 per child over the year. To qualify, they needed to come from households below 130% (free) and 185% (low-cost) of the federal poverty level.

Wondering what an impact these meals had on the children they were meant for, a (Mathematica Policy Research report) [pdf] concluded in 2010 that children from a food-insecure background who participated in NSLP obtained on average 32% of their caloric intake from the school meals. This only goes to show the strong dependency of children on the meals provided by the schools, and that their nutritional health isn’t just a question of what they’re fed at home.

The quality of the food isn’t just a question of calories, however. Micronutrient deficiency, where people fail to get enough vitamins and minerals but consume their required amount of calories, is recognised problem in the developing world, but less so in the US, where ca. 85% of Americans do not consume the recommended daily intakes of essential vitamins and minerals. This is especially worrying in children, as those who are malnourished at a young age are more likely to suffer from “delayed motor, cognitive and behavioural development [as well as] diminished intellectual performance, low work capacity [as adults]”, according to a study.

THAT is exactly why food matters, because it influences development, and not just physiologically, but socially as well. If malnutrition leads to stunted intellectual and behavioural development, that will most likely impact a student’s grades. Those grades play a large role, increasingly with age, on the opportunities that that student will have access to in terms of further education, employment and benefits, and surpassing the poverty level of their parents.

So now having understood how the school lunches play a role in a student’s overall development, especially in children from food-insecure households, how are they holding up against this responsibility?

Apparently, poorly. Enough so that new nutritional guidelines were proposed to go into effect in 2012, in an attempt to lower sodium, saturated fats and calorie intake whilst increasing the fruit, vegetable and whole-grain consumption of participants. According to a 2014 study, the measures have made a positive impact, although there is now debate over how effective they can be at improving health if student aren’t eating the food but throwing it away.

This is one of the cited reasons, along with high costs, that the School Nutrition Association – a lobbying group representing school nutrition professionals – had started lobbying Congress to allow participating schools to opt out of the nutritional guidelines, according to the New York Times. This move prompted backlash, as the SNA had previously backed the new guidelines. The same NYT article reported that nineteen former SNA presidents had signed a letter to congress opposing current SNA’s proposed amendments, and that many SNA members had managed to implement the guidelines within their budget. The question then started to arise: why the sudden change of heart?

The finger was pointed to the food companies whose sponsorships “cover over half of its $10.5 million annual budget."

One may say that the SNA are just an interest group, and that economic interest doesn’t go as far as the US Department of Agriculture, who actually run and fund the NSLP. Unfortunately, one doesn’t have to go further than the NSLP origin to disprove that. It was originally set up as a dumping ground for agricultural commodity surpluses to satisfy farmers, which is why the program is run by the Department of Agriculture, and not the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. A few decades later, and a quarter of the school nutrition program has been privatised in an effort to make it more efficient. These food service management companies have worked closely with food manufacturers to process the food their given and shorten the work in the cafeterias, cutting local skilled labour. What’s more is that the food processors have been giving the management companies rebates of up to 14% while the schools are charged the full price.

Bottom line: Children from food-insecure households are being fed lunches that do nothing to support development, whose components are determined not by their nutritional value, but by the profit-maximising agendas of lobbyists and private companies.

* Please help my growth and development economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice :)