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 :)


Carol said...

Excellent piece. There should be a report with specific recommendations for schools, including economics and possible sources.

Kristina said...

This is a fascinating topic and take, as one doesn’t usually think of lobbying by corporations as something related to school lunches, but apparently it is. I think more detail and explanation would be needed to fully paint a picture of what this entails though (of course in a longer paper). For example, how exactly did part of the program come to be privatized? The dumping ground argument, both from personal experience, and from the article cited is also directly linked to the fact that children do not want to eat the food, even if it is nutritious, because often it looks absolutely disgusting. I think from here on it would be helpful to compare with successful lunch systems in other countries, and see what the U.S. could do to improve. I also wonder how much school lunch quality is tied to neighborhood, as schools are usually funded by local property taxes, so that might be another source of differences. A inequality-focused take would work very well with this topic I think.

Sophia said...

Thank you for this interesting take on the National School Lunch program in the US, Alex. I was surprised that many students actually throw their school lunches away (I expect this to be the healthy lunches?) and that this ‘food waste’ issue is then used as a justification for not providing healthier lunches. I was thinking that the underlying issue might also be a lack of knowledge/awareness about the benefits of healthy and nutrient dense food, particularly making the connection to child’s development and school performance as you described at the beginning of your blogpost. Another issue to tackle might then be the negative perception of healthy food that leads to waste of school lunches and lack of support for healthier initiatives due to the high costs of the wasted food. If students, parents and teachers got on on board to make eating healthy a top priority there might also be enough pressure from below to implement better guidelines for the NSL? Are awareness raising campaigns that target the benefits of healthy eating something that the SNA has considered? I found it a bit confusing to read that the SNA first backed the nutritional guidelines and then decided to stop their support. What exactly has changed in-between? I find it less convincing that suddenly the sponsorship of bigger food companies caused the change in direction, as I would have expect this to have already been a barrier in the first-place hindering initial support for the guidelines. Does the SNA think that there might be another intervention with a similar outcome that could be more effective ( e.g. making healthy eating more attractive)? But perhaps I am missing a piece of the puzzle or something within the SNA changed during the time, because I am no expert on this topic! But I would really like to learn more about how the SNA is associated with different economic interest in the food and agricultural industry and how it links back to the NSL program. I do find the fact that the food industry has so much influence about governmental food guidelines extremely scary and it makes me reconsider some of the advices. I also agree with the points that Kristina mentioned previously about looking at inequality between different districts ( great idea!) but perhaps it is a bit challenging as the NSL program will probably be more present in low-income neighbourhoods. Might it be an idea to also look at how other schools provide food ( not free lunches) to their students? Perhaps you could also look at private schools where I would expect the NSL to be less/not (not sure how it exactly works) implemented but see how healthy those school lunches generally are? So is the lack of healthy school lunches a problem that goes beyond only the NSL program? I was also wondering if it might be an idea to partner with companies that promote healthy eating/ healthier food, as some bigger food companies are starting to make healthier changes to respond to the slowly but surely growing public awareness around the benefits of a nutritious diet ( http://www.onlyorganic.org/why-junk-food-and-fast-food-companies-are-going-healthy-and-organic/ or https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/food-companies-health-wellbeing )? It might also be interesting to see how the political situation fits into the picture, particularly with the change in administration, as I have read that the Trump administration relaxed some of the nutritional guidelines here: https://www.businessinsider.nl/trump-administration-relax-school-lunch-rules-2018-1/?international=true&r=US) ? And thanks again for the well-written and insightful blog post!

Tory said...

I really enjoyed reading this blog post Alex! Growing up in the U.S. public school system, I ate school lunch and can definitely contest to the fact that there is a severe lack of nutritional value to the food that is served. I remember as I got older, our school attempted to add more nutritional options and put limits on the amount of unhealthy food that a student can purchase (we weren’t allowed to buy three cookies at lunch anymore, unfortunately). In my experience, even when schools add nutritional guidelines and ‘healthy options’ there lacks an enforcement mechanism to ensure that students stick to these guidelines. Moreover, a big contributing factor to thee nutrient deficiencies could be the fact that American students are growing up in a fast food consuming culture and are not properly educated about how to eat nutritiously at school (and many are also not taught at home). Even if healthy options exist, kids need to be taught the importance of a balanced diet.

I was unaware and shocked by the sheer amount of profit-maximsing agendas of the lobbyists and private companies, especially when it comes to students nutrition. It reminded me of the discussion we had in class about the ‘dark side’ of government involvement in nutrition and health. It seems as if we are stuck in this cycle of recognizing that the government is not a reliable source of information when it comes to certain aspects of society’s welfare, but changing the system is so complex and difficult the cycle persists.

In response to Kristina’s comment above, I would also be really curious to know the effect of neighborhood on the lunch quality of schools. I wrote a blog post discussing the inequality of school funding across districts and would assume that funding would have a significant effect on food quality. Lunch is usually catered by private companies which means that schools with higher funding may be able to purchase higher quality (and potentially healthier) food for their students. Even if students are educated on nutritional value as I discussed above, if they are not provided with higher quality food, nutrient deficiency will remain a huge issue in the United States.

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