The author of a groundbreaking 1988 study demonstrating the link between school meal programs and classroom achievement has denounced as “outrageous” the Trump administration’s assertion that no such link exists.
When Mick Mulvaney, director of Donald Trump’s office of budget management, told press on Thursday that the administration’s attack on school meal programs because they “don’t work”, he did not mean that they don’t feed hungry children.
“Let’s talk about after-school programs generally: they’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home get fed so they do better in school. Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence that they’re actually doing that,” Mulvaney said. “There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually helping results, helping kids do better in school.”
That statement is “an outrageous, fallacious comment that clearly reflects a lack of knowledge, or perhaps even worse, dishonesty”, said physician Michael Weitzman in an interview with the Guardian. Weitzman is the former chair of pediatrics at New York University, where he currently teaches, and this year’s recipient of the John Howland award, the highest honor bestowed by the American Pediatric Society.
Weitzman is also an author of the 1988 study of Boston schoolchildren that showed a causal relationship between academic performance and expanded school breakfast programs for the first time. When the study was released, Weitzman argued, and still argues, that the cost to the public of school meals is a pittance compared with the benefit to society. The findings “clearly demonstrate that feeding children breakfast in school at a very modest cost – less than $1 a day – has positive effects on their educational attainment,” Weitzman told the New York Times at the time.
[It's] an outrageous, fallacious comment that clearly reflects a lack of knowledge, or perhaps even worse, dishonestyMichael Weitzman
Republicans spent the Obama administration mocking Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve school meals; doctors fear that lobbying groups like the School Nutrition Association, which campaigns for lowered nutritional standards in children’s meals, will have its way in a Trump administration. Funding for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is not addressed in the Trump budget, which is not exhaustive, but the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the program and other childhood nutrition initiatives, will have to make cuts somewhere – of the department’s hunger alleviation initiatives, only the supplemental nutritional assistance program is guaranteed funding in the Trump budget.
The connection between childhood nutrition and hard educational metrics such as attendance and test performance has been documented repeatedly, by universities as well as government agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Weitzman and the other researchers who worked on the Boston study demonstrated explicitly that federally funded nutrition programs improve academic performance. That they help to alleviate poverty as well is simply a bonus.
Children qualify for federally subsidized school meals if their family’s income is at or below 130% of the federal poverty line, or $31,950 for a family of four. In rural Tennessee, where the cost of living is the lowest in the US according to the Economic Policy Institute, that family would still need $49,767 to stay solvent.
While Mulvaney was immediately denounced for heartlessness, the South Carolina Republican also “shows a great disrespect to what science has to contribute to children’s performance in school”, Weitzman told the Guardian, “which is the work of children and the foundation of society”.
The USDA estimated in 2015 that the 6.4 million children lived in households that were “food-insecure”, meaning that the households sometimes did not have access to “enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members”. Households with children were food-insecure at a rate of 16.6%, higher than the national average. The Trump administration proposes deep cuts to the USDA, which administers nutritional assistance programs.