• <div class="header-image" style="background-image: url(/live/image/gid/4/2756_V6N7Web_Header_small.rev.1533574420.jpg);">​</div><div class="header-background-color"/>

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 Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

References

  [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.

PENN WHARTON PPI
RESOURCE SPOTLIGHT:

  • <h3>Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED®)</h3><p><strong><img width="180" height="79" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/79/481_fred-logo.rev.1407788243.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image481 lw_align_right" data-max-w="222" data-max-h="97"/>An online database consisting of more than 72,000 economic data time series from 54 national, international, public, and private sources.</strong> FRED®, created and maintained by Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, goes far beyond simply providing data: It combines data with a powerful mix of tools that help the user understand, interact with, display, and disseminate the data.</p><p> Quick link to data page: <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series" target="_blank">http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Center for Education Statistics</h3><p><strong><img width="400" height="80" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/400/height/80/479_nces.rev.1407787656.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image479 lw_align_right" data-max-w="400" data-max-h="80"/>The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations.</strong> NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES has an extensive Statistical Standards Program that consults and advises on methodological and statistical aspects involved in the design, collection, and analysis of data collections in the Center. To learn more about the NCES, <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/about/" target="_blank">click here</a>.</p><p> Quick link to NCES Data Tools: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4</a></p><p> Quick link to Quick Tables and Figures: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCES Fast Facts (Note: The primary purpose of the Fast Facts website is to provide users with concise information on a range of educational issues, from early childhood to adult learning.): <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/#</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Internal Revenue Service: Tax Statistics</h3><p><img width="155" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image486 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg 2x" data-max-w="463" data-max-h="596"/>Find statistics on business tax, individual tax, charitable and exempt organizations, IRS operations and budget, and income (SOI), as well as statistics by form, products, publications, papers, and other IRS data.</p><p> Quick link to <strong>Tax Statistics, where you will find a wide range of tables, articles, and data</strong> that describe and measure elements of the U.S. tax system: <a href="http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2" target="_blank">http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>NOAA National Climatic Data Center</h3><p><img width="200" height="198" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image483 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 3x" data-max-w="954" data-max-h="945"/>NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is responsible for preserving, monitoring, assessing, and providing public access to the Nation’s treasure of <strong>climate and historical weather data and information</strong>.</p><p> Quick link to home page: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCDC’s climate and weather datasets, products, and various web pages and resources: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links</a></p><p> Quick link to Text & Map Search: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Aviation Administration: Accident & Incident Data</h3><p><img width="100" height="100" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image80 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 3x" data-max-w="550" data-max-h="550"/>The NTSB issues an accident report following each investigation. These reports are available online for reports issued since 1996, with older reports coming online soon. The reports listing is sortable by the event date, report date, city, and state.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/" target="_blank">http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>USDA Nutrition Assistance Data</h3><p><img width="180" height="124" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image485 lw_align_right" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1233" data-max-h="850"/>Data and research regarding the following <strong>USDA Nutrition Assistance</strong> programs are available through this site:</p><ul><li>Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) </li><li>Food Distribution Programs </li><li>School Meals </li><li>Women, Infants and Children </li></ul><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics" target="_blank">http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Congressional Budget Office</h3><p><img width="180" height="180" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/180/380_cbo-logo.rev.1406822035.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image380 lw_align_right" data-max-w="180" data-max-h="180"/>Since its founding in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has produced independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.</p><p> The agency is strictly nonpartisan and conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year. CBO does not make policy recommendations, and each report and cost estimate discloses the agency’s assumptions and methodologies. <strong>CBO provides budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process.</strong> Products include baseline budget projections and economic forecasts, analysis of the President’s budget, cost estimates, analysis of federal mandates, working papers, and more.</p><p> Quick link to Products page: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products</a></p><p> Quick link to Topics: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/topics" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/topics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The Penn World Table</h3><p> The Penn World Table provides purchasing power parity and national income accounts converted to international prices for 189 countries/territories for some or all of the years 1950-2010.</p><p><a href="https://pwt.sas.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt71/pwt71_form.php" target="_blank">Quick link.</a> </p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Bureau of Economic Research (Public Use Data Archive)</h3><p><img width="180" height="43" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/43/478_nber.rev.1407530465.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image478 lw_align_right" data-max-w="329" data-max-h="79"/>Founded in 1920, the <strong>National Bureau of Economic Research</strong> is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works. The NBER is committed to undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals, and the academic community.</p><p> Quick Link to <strong>Public Use Data Archive</strong>: <a href="http://www.nber.org/data/" target="_blank">http://www.nber.org/data/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>HUD State of the Cities Data Systems</h3><p><strong><img width="200" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image482 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 3x" data-max-w="612" data-max-h="613"/>The SOCDS provides data for individual Metropolitan Areas, Central Cities, and Suburbs.</strong> It is a portal for non-national data made available through a number of outside institutions (e.g. Census, BLS, FBI and others).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html" target="_blank">http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>MapStats</h3><p> A feature of FedStats, MapStats allows users to search for <strong>state, county, city, congressional district, or Federal judicial district data</strong> (demographic, economic, and geographic).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/" target="_blank">http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The World Bank Data (U.S.)</h3><p><img width="130" height="118" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image484 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1406" data-max-h="1275"/>The <strong>World Bank</strong> provides World Development Indicators, Surveys, and data on Finances and Climate Change.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states" target="_blank">http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>