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The Economic Benefits of School Meal Programs

August 14, 2017

On March 16th, 2017 White House budget director Mike Mulvaney drew headlines for his press briefing regarding the administration’s budget proposal. His comments on one topic, after school programs that provide meals for low-income students, received significant airplay.

“They’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home, get fed, so they do better in school,” Mulvanev said in reference to the after school programs. “Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that… the way we justified it was: these programs are gonna help these kids do better in school and get better jobs, and we can’t prove that that’s happening”[1].

What validity is in Director Muvanev’s statement? Do programs that feed low-income students really not increase academic performance? Even in the case that they don’t, is their cost really so high that a budget cut outweighs the program’s societal benefits?

School Meal Program’s Effect on Academic Performance

For years, the federal government has funded breakfast, lunch and after school meal programs for low-income students, and during the Obama administration, standards regarding food quality and health benefits have been raised [2]. There is overwhelming evidence that these programs and health standards are not merely charity and do increase student performance.

In an interview with the Guardian, Michael Weitzman, the former chair of pediatrics at New York University called Director Muvanev’s statement “an outrageous, fallacious comment that clearly reflects a lack of knowledge, or perhaps even worse, dishonesty” [3].

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently published a study highlighting the links between students’ health and academic performance.

The report included four core messages. The first stated that “Healthy students are better on all levels of academic achievement: academic performance, education behavior, cognitive skills and attitudes” [4]. The report cited links between hunger and lower marks, absenteeism and repeating years of school.

This government report not only counters Director Muvanev’s claim that there is no link between feeding kids and academic performance, but it also shows the potential economic and budget saving benefits of such programs.

Children participation in school meal programs has increased significantly in recent years due to the Obama administration’s expansion of the Community Eligibility program. The program allows schools or school districts in which more than 40% of the student population is eligible for free meals to provide free meals to all its students [5]. Some opponents of the expansion are critical on the basis that it is wasted spending to provide welfare for middle class students [6]. However, even when factoring in the expansion, the cost of feeding students is relatively small.

Image: This graph shows the national participation in the National School Lunch Program since 2000. Source: Wikimedia Commons.Image: This graph shows the national participation in the National School Lunch Program since 2000.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to NPR’s Planet Money, it costs an average of 10,615 dollars per year to send a kid to public school [7]. By comparison, the National School Lunch Program spends 11.6 billion dollars per year to feed 31.6 million school children each school day [8]. That amounts to just over 367 dollars per student per year, which is just under 3.5% of the cost of sending a student to public school, or more bluntly, 3.5% of the cost to the system of a student repeating a grade. If for no other reason than saving the public’s money, feeding students is well worth the cost.

School Meal Program’s Effect on Children’s Health

The third core message of the CDC report stressed that “Investing in the health of students contributes to healthy communities in the future” [9]. This claim has less empirical evidence to display. However, logical reasoning follows that if students succeed in school they will increase their future learning and earning potential, which will pay back society through business and tax revenue.

Beyond academic benefits, school meal programs aid students and the taxpayer in other ways.

The Food Research and Action Center published a report cited by the CDC that stated “School breakfast participation is associated with a lower body mass index, lower probability of being overweight, and lower probability of obesity” [10]. Therefore, school meal programs have the added benefit of combatting obesity and the health care costs associated with it.

Image: This graph shows the increasing prevalence of overweight children over the past few decades. Source: Wikimedia Commons.Image: This graph shows the increasing prevalence of overweight children over the past few decades.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As of 2014, one in three American children were overweight or obese, and some estimates predict that by 2030 more than half of the adult population will be dangerously overweight [11]. This number is not only dangerous from a health perspective but also a spending perspective. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the United States spent 190 billion dollars on obesity-related health care expenses in 2005 [12]. Adjusting for inflation alone, that figure rises to over 275 billion dollars [13]. Yet, the administration’s proposed budget still plans to make cuts to school meal programs that combat this very issue.

Despite Director Muvanev’s statement, investing in childhood nutrition has proven to increase academic performance. Additionally, it has proven to combat childhood obesity and improve children’s health. Both of these facts are undoubtedly important from a grand societal perspective. However, they become even more justified when supported with quantitative evidence that the monetary benefits of feeding low-income children significantly outweigh the fiscal costs. Thus it is not only morally responsible to invest in school meal programs, but also it is fiscally prudent as well.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


  [1] “Mulvaney: After-school programs don’t ‘show results.’” The Washington Post, last modified March 16, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/national/mulvaney-questions-efficiency-of-meals-on-wheels-after-school-programs/2017/03/16/69baa016-0a87-11e7-bd19-fd3afa0f7e2a_video.html.

  [2] “How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground.” The New York Times, last modified October 7, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/magazine/how-school-lunch-became-the-latest-political-battleground.html?_r=0.

  [3]“’Outrageous’: expert slams White House for denying school meals’ link to learning.” The Guardian, last modified March 17, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/17/school-lunch-program-cuts-student-performance-link.

  [4] “Health and Academic Achievement.” The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, last modified May, 2014, https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/health_and_academics/pdf/health-academic-achievement.pdf.

  [5] “A record number of poor kids are eating breakfast — thanks to a program many conservatives hate.” The Washington Post, last modified February 14, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/02/14/a-record-number-of-poor-kids-are-eating-breakfast-thanks-to-a-program-many-conservatives-hate/?utm_term=.34c5ac35fc8f.

  [6] Ibid.

  [7] http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2012/06/21/155515613/how-much-does-the-government-spend-to-send-a-kid-to-school

  [8] “How Much Does The Government Spend To Send A Kid To Public School?” NPR.org, last modified June 21, 2012, https://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/cn/NSLPFactSheet.pdf.

  [9] “Health and Academic Achievement.” The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, last modified May, 2014, https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/health_and_academics/pdf/health-academic-achievement.pdf.

  [10]“Research Brief: Breakfast for Learning.” Food Research and Action Center, last modified October, 2016, http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/breakfastforlearning-1.pdf.

  [11] “How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground.” The New York Times, last modified October 7, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/magazine/how-school-lunch-became-the-latest-political-battleground.html?_r=0.

  [12] “Obesity Prevention Source.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, last accessed July 17, 2017, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-consequences/economic/.

  [13] “CPI Inflation Calculator.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, last accessed July 17, 2017, https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm.


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