Tag Archives: school lunch program

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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Sarah Brodsky on School Lunch: Consumer Preferences = Protectionism

I’ll write a longer, more exhaustive post, but Sarah Brodsky’s latest post at the Show-Me Institute has me boggled with how inane and wrong-spirited it is. In it, she responds to an article in the Christian Science Monitor noting the following:

As Farm to School expands to include products like meat or cheese, it gets harder for supporters to justify the program as anything but protectionism. The appeal of local fruits and vegetables is easier to relate to. Anyone’s who’s eaten delicious fruit right off the tree can sympathize with activists’ support for local produce. (At least, we can sympathize in the early fall and late spring. Activists still have to explain how local produce is superior during the rest of the school year, when very few fruits or vegetables are harvested. Many will say to preserve the local food in the fall — but is locally preserved food really better than food that was preserved somewhere else, or shipped in fresh?)

Protectionism refers to the top-down trade policies of nations looking to protect domestic industries through tariffs or import quotas. Neither of these are the case. What is the case is that schools are working hard to transition from unsafe food low in nutrients to safe foods high in nutrients; often these are locally produced produce and meats. There is no restriction on the availability or price of market alternatives.

Further, Brodsky’s armchair theorizing is inane and worse than useless. Of course it’s true that there are seasonal variations in what is available. But it’s wrong-spirited to criticize the people who are making those decisions for making the rational calculations that say that it is worth it to them to begin transitioning their consumption in ways that take advantage of what is available locally when they can. Perhaps Brodsky should call the fourth-graders cited in the article and tell them that they should be eating industrially produced meat that may have high levels of bacterial contamination that they can’t easily monitor but is available for a lower price than local meat.

And Brodsky ignores what the article in the CSM actually says. Here are some excerpts:

The students are learning to eat healthier, and the focus on agriculture, local food and nutrition is paying off in the classroom, says principal Barrett Williams.

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.”

But activities like the farm field trips are what Williams really likes.

“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.

The grant helped to buy at least 200 pounds of ground beef from Back Beyond Farm in Chelsea, which cost about a dollar more per pound than hamburger from an area distributor, Perry says. But Vermont apples are cheaper than apples from other states, she says.

The school has raised money for the program by hosting a winter farmers’ market.

I am honestly stunned that the Show-Me Institute pays for this quality of scholarship. Brodsky’s argumentation is not even coherent, nor is it based on any educated or thoroughly researched framework. Brodsky simply does not like the idea that school districts are re-evaluating their school lunches and consider the investment in better meat and produce to be worth it; indeed, she characterizes this expression of consumer preferences as protectionism! Nor does she compute the implicit benefits of better academic achievement or the economies of scale that are generated when the school invests in multi-use programs like these.  And one would think Brodsky should know better: she is either a student or a graduate of a Masters program in economics at Loyola, which means at some point she’s been taught how to parse information and research at a graduate level.

I want to specifically note that I don’t deny the infrastructural problems or the issues that face school districts looking at their cafeteria as a place where improvement is drastically needed. Sensible debate can be had over food policy, from agricultural subsidies to nutrition to the constraints that schools operate under. Indeed, I had a great discussion about subsidy policy yesterday with an engineer friend, Eric Lefevre. But Brodsky’s analysis and argumentation are poor and patronizing. Indeed, most of her posts cite articles that are selectively interpreted for her purposes because they draw the opposite conclusion.

I don’t mean to discourage readers from the rest of the Show-Me Institute’s writers. Dr. Haslag, a former professor of mine, has some very useful and worthwhile advocacy in support of switching from a state income tax to a state sales tax here. The coverage of the Northside trial by Audrey Spaulding  is absolutely worth reading if you are interested in eminent domain and land use politics in this state. David Stokes covers the politics of contractor work in St. Louis (a fascinating and worthwhile read). But Brodsky’s advocacy is embarrassingly useless and I hope it doesn’t discourage people from thinking seriously about the benefits of feeding our children well.

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