REYES: There is plenty of evidence to support meal programs
Opinions Column: And (Economic) Justice For All
White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney recently defended proposed budget cuts to prominent anti-hunger programs, including the popular Meals on Wheels America and school meal programs, stating that the administration will not spend money “on programs that cannot show that they actually deliver the promises …” He went on to claim that there is “no demonstrable evidence” that school meals help kids perform better academically. In the age of “alternative facts,” it comes as no surprise that an official from President Donald J. Trump's administration is making unfounded assertions about programs that help the poor. It is crucial that members of this democratic republic stay vigilant and review the evidence when such statements are made.
So do programs that provide meals actually improve outcomes? First, it is important to highlight how widespread food insecurity and hunger is: In 2015, nearly 20 percent of U.S. households experienced food insecurity and households with children report a significantly higher rate than those without children. What is more, of the 12 states that exhibited statistically higher household food insecurity rates than the national average, 10 voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2016 national election. It might behoove the Trump administration to pay attention to the “hard-working Americans” (largely working poor) it claims as the majority of its base — though the reality is a discussion for another time.
Over the years, numerous studies documented the connection between nutrition programs and better academic and life outcomes. A famous 1988 study of Boston schoolchildren showed a causal relationship between expanded school breakfast programs and higher academic performance. Participation in school meal programs is also associated with reduced absenteeism, improved cognitive performance, and an increased ability to focus. Of late, researchers have been looking into the effects of healthier school meals on performance. This happened after a number of provisions in the most recent Child Nutrition Reauthorization of 2010 were vehemently opposed by many conservatives. A team of economists recently published a paper showing that students at schools with healthier school lunch vendors perform better on state tests — a significant finding given that improving school meals is highly cost-effective compared to other policy interventions set on raising achievement.
In 2014, 9 percent of seniors (over age 60) were food insecure. Providing home-delivered meals is one way to address this need. Meals on Wheels America, a nonprofit organization that receives a mix of private and public funding, serves over 2 million seniors ages 60 and older each year. It too has exhibited positive outcomes for participants. A 2013 review of home-delivered meal programs found that they “significantly improve diet quality, increase nutrient intakes, reduce food insecurity and nutritional risk among participants.” Moreover, seniors also benefitted from reduced risk of falls, “increased socialization opportunities, improvement in dietary adherence and higher quality of life.” In an era of cost constraints, Meals on Wheels has also proven to be a good bang-for-your-buck for older adults who can remain in their homes and communities instead of moving into costly nursing facilities for long-term care. With the rising costs of healthcare particularly for seniors, programs like Meals on Wheels go very far in reducing long-term healthcare expenditures. A health services study showed that “Medicaid spending could be reduced by $109 million if all states were to increase the population of people who receive home-delivered meals by 1 percent.” Including the value of volunteer labor and donated resources, this comes to approximately $11 per meal or about $2,500 per year — a sound investment especially when compared to the $2,300 average per day cost of hospital care.
These are extremely uncertain times when it comes to federal support for poverty alleviation and anti-hunger programs particularly those funded by community development block grants that would be eliminated under Trump’s budget. Mulvaney’s claim that these meal programs do not work is not only unfounded, it goes against the Trump administration’s cost-saving rhetoric as multiple studies conclude the positive return on investment of Meals on Wheels and school nutrition programs. It should come as no surprise that children who are well-fed are healthier physically and mentally and can focus on their studies. The merits of feeding seniors, many of whom are veterans and/or disabled, should not be debated. Not only do we have the evidence to show that anti-hunger and nutrition programs are smart investments, it is our civic duty to care for the most vulnerable among us. Support our children and seniors and call your representatives to demand they stand up for those who need them the most right now. To fight poverty and end hunger, we must support a humane, evidence-based national food policy that includes these successful programs. In the end, facts really do matter.
Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, “And (Economic) Justice For All,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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