The Shadow Cost of Undernourished and Hungry Children

I argue that there are significant implicit costs that opponents of school nutrition reform and the local food movement neglect in cost-benefit analyses of the grassroots transition to serving more local, nutritious foods in schools.  One of the key omissions is the implicit costs of hunger in the classroom. Kleinman et al 1998 in the journal Pediatrics note:

The data from this study reveal that hunger may constitute another of these poverty-related burdens and seems to have a unique impact on the daily psychosocial functioning of poor children. In this rigorously selected community sample of low-income children, hungry children were 3 times more likely than at-risk for hunger children and 7 times more likely than not hungry children to receive scores indicative of clinical dysfunction on the PSC.

They continue:

…Analysis of specific symptoms revealed that hungry children were 7 to 12 times more likely to exhibit symptoms of conduct disorder than not hungry children. In addition, the PSC case rate (8% in this sample) was consistent with case rates of 7 to 11% found in recent large-scale studies of low-income populations using an oral administration of the PSC,33,34 although lower than the rate found in earlier studies using the standard written administration with African-American children. Although poverty puts a child at-risk for dysfunction, the added burden of periodic experiences of hunger may increase the chance of psychosocial  dysfunction and may produce some important negative behavioral sequelae. Specifically, the findings from this study suggest that hungry children demonstrate higher levels of anxious and irritable, aggressive and oppositional behaviors than their low-income, but not hungry, peers..

Here is a partial list of the implicit costs associated with our collective failure to provide schoolchildren with sufficient nutrition through the school day. A useful framework is the concept of ‘guard labor’ developed by Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev.

  • The cost of discipline professionals in schools: security/police officers, nurses, counselors trained in psychiatry and other sciences predicated on managing behavior.
  • The cost of discipline problems in schools immediately linked to hungry or malnourished children. This includes the costs of separate detention facilities, social workers to manage cases, legal costs, incarceration costs, etc.
  • The costs of diagnosis and medication of misbehaving children. There is a massive industry that is predicated on the notion that we can medicate away most behavior problems. As a result, it is probably true that disorders like ADHD are massively overdiagnosed and drugs like Ritalin and Adderall prescribed far too often.
  • The implicit costs of the forgone gains in academic achievement. Hunger systemically mitigates the effectiveness of all other programs we have in place to boost academic achievement.

The implication here is that the aggregate costs of managing hunger and misbehavior in schools are large and systemic. Two additional implications:

  • This means that increasing net participation in school breakfast and lunch programs is a policy imperative.
  • This means that we should have a preference for nutritious food over processed commodity foods with low nutritive value and hard-to-evaluate safety risks (like the bottom-grade meat subsidized for school consumption by the USDA)

In terms of increasing net participation, serving tastier food is a logical choice. In this sense the pure taste dimension of food serves important branding function. So arguments that we shouldn’t spend more money on food that simply taste better miss the point: if we spend more money on tasty food, we increase school lunch participation, and we garner large-scale aggregate benefits to increased academic achievement and large-scale indirect savings from the reduction in the equilibrium quantity of non-productive guard labor and technologies used.

Why local food? And yes, the definition of what is ‘local’ is somewhat variable. But think of ‘local’ in relational terms, or in terms of search costs. ‘Local’ functionally means that search and management costs are low; in relational terms this means that you have a personal relationship of some meaningful nature with the people you do business with. In a world of electronic communication, this means that the spatial component is less meaningful. By way of example, take a look at the number of wineries trying to build their brands through direct internet marketing over Facebook, Twitter, etc. ‘Local’ wine products are branded and distributed globally and winemakers and brands can manage their relationships directly. ‘Local’ food also implies small production (or at least non-industrial production) and a commitment to sustainable farming; as a corollary, food yields are relatively lower and more nutritious.

Under these parameters, does it make sense for Sarah Brodsky to criticize a Vermont school district for spending an additional $1 per pound for local beef by misrepresenting this grassroots shift in consumer preferences as “protectionism”? Consider what the school in question (Sharon Elementary) got in return:

  • Less food waste and increased participation in their school lunch program, meaning lower waste costs and  systemically better academic outcomes:
    • When Ms. Perry used to prepare salads for the kids, there was a lot of waste. But when kids could choose what they wanted in their bowls or on their plates, more were eating fruits and vegetables, she says.
      The number of students buying hot lunch has jumped by 50 percent since the school added the salad bar, Perry says. The salad bar is also used for tacos and stir-fries.
  • Gains in student interest that directly translated to better academic outcomes:
    • Kids are interested, and teachers are given more diversity in the curriculum — they can work the food angle in science, reading and health classes, he says. “That really changes kids’ perspectives on the traditional reading, writing, math, science, social studies,” Mr. Williams says. “If they can see that they are meeting writing standards through doing a response to their cooking activity that day, you know, that means something to them.”
  • Increased the performance of students who responded well to different modes of instruction:
    • A student who may struggle with a textbook — sitting down and reading text and responding to text — may excel going into a place-based activity,” Williams says. “Whether it’s visiting a farm or going on some type of field trip and having a hands-on experience, and then being able to respond to that through writing.” Working with local farmers helps build community, he says, although that food may be more expensive than the commodity food that some schools use.
  • Lower marginal costs of providing education, since schools don’t have to pay for the expertise and knowledge base that they’re able to access from local farmers that they’re buying product from. This saves on the costs of purchasing curriculum and allows teachers to become more efficient by tapping into informational synergies garnered from collaboration with local farmers.
  • The article also notes throughout that this program has resulted in children getting excited to learn and performing well. Implicitly this means that there are savings from not utilizing non-productive behavior management personnel or technologies.

So here’s my point. There are fair criticisms and arguments as the difficulties and costs associated with the proposals to utilize more local foods in school lunches. But a fair assessment of the costs of child hunger in the status quo are also in order, and it is important to note the implicit costs of market distortions. But Brodsky doesn’t do that. She sticks to selective, patronizing arguments against the children and parents and school districts who evaluate the food choices available and decide it is worth the extra money and effort to acquire local food products (here, here, and here). In fact, virtually all of the articles Brodsky cites conclude that increasing usage of local food is good and present cogent arguments for improving the quality of school lunches, despite the structural barriers in the status quo. These are arguments she never addresses seriously or represents fairly.

Before I finish, I’ll address one last argument here. First, the role of public health agencies in promoting local food is a good and necessary one. The argument is that educated people make better decisions than ignorant people, and health decisions are hugely meaningful when we are confronting obesity and diabetic* epidemics that are caused in large part by uneducated consumption habits of our population. Public health agencies have a lot of work to do to persuade people to decrease their consumption of refined sugar, processed grains, and other processed foods that are artificially cheap because of large, market-distorting subsidies. In this sense, public health agencies have a consumer protection function: consumers are victims of large information asymmetries and the public agencies are uniquely placed to mediate those asymmetries. This is a good thing.

If we can replicate this program in Missouri, why not? I’ve been touting Culinary Institute of America graduate Brook Harlan’s** program at Rock Bridge High School and the Columbia Area Career Center for as long as I’ve known him and the woman he works with, Carrie Risner. Here is a profile of Brook and his program by local food blog He Cooks, She Cooks.

(*: Full disclosure: my father is an endocrinologist specializing in diabetic treatment. **More full disclosure: I’ve worked with several of Brook’s students and even hired some of them in previous jobs).

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One thought on “The Shadow Cost of Undernourished and Hungry Children

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