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Hunger Is Bad, Especially for Kids

The Obama administration recently announced two new initiatives to reduce childhood food insecurity. Here's why that's a really, really good thing.
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(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Last week, the Obama administration announced two new initiatives aimed at reducing childhood food insecurity in America. Both measures, which will simplify enrollment in the National School Lunch Program and provide supplemental food benefits during the summer months, should go beyond benefiting hungry kids—they could be a boon to the government's bottom line.

The first initiative is a line item in the president's 2017 budget (still subject to Congressional approval) to implement a permanent Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children program, which provides supplemental food assistance benefits in the summer months to families with children who receive free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year. These children are often at a greatly increased risk of food insecurity in the summertime, when they're not receiving free meals at school; small trials of this program in a few states have significantly reduced insecurity during those months.

"As you probably know, the USDA tries to help fill in the missing meals by providing summer feeding programs, typically offered in a feeding center," economist Diane Schanzenbach, who appeared on a panel at the White House's event announcing the initiatives, writes in an email. "This approach has important downsides [because] it requires children to actually show up at the feeding center which might work well if you're in an urban area, but it gets harder when transportation is a larger challenge such as in a rural area."

Only 64 percent of eligible households participated in the National School Lunch Program in 2013.

Obama's second initiative is a pilot program aimed at streamlining the enrollment process for the National School Lunch Program. Under Obama's plan, state agencies would be permitted to automatically certify students for the program using Medicaid income data; the Department of Agriculture is hoping to enroll five states for the 2016–17 school year and an additional 15 in the subsequent two academic years. The administration is optimistic that simplifying the process will increase participation rates—an analysis by the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy indicates that only 64 percent of eligible households participated in the National School Lunch Program in 2013.

"Under the normal process, families fill out forms that are confusing and onerous, then turn them into the schools where the forms get checked by someone who isn't usually well suited to be an intake caseworker," Schanzenbach writes. "As a result, there is a lot of wasted time (that could be better spent educating the children at the school!) and lots of mistakes—in both directions, denying access to students who should qualify for a subsidized meal and vice versa—are made. This new program is streamlining this whole process. It's going to reduce administrative costs and improve the fidelity of the program."

Most Americans, no matter their politics, can agree that kids need to eat. As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Washington Post: "I don't think we're going to see much resistance. It's pretty hard to position yourself against feeding kids, politically speaking."

The benefits of the president's plan, however, extend beyond the warm and the fuzzy. In a brief accompanying the president's announcement, Hilary Seligman, a doctor who's conducted fascinating research on food insecurity and diabetes, offered the following summary of the negative effects of childhood food insecurity:

In addition to decreased intellectual and emotional development and poor academic performance, children living in food insecure households are at higher risk of poor physical and mental health. They are substantially more likely to be diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, asthma, mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, cognitive impairment, and behavioral disorders. They are also at higher risk of being hospitalized. These health problems, and the resulting time demands placed on caregivers, impact the ability of caregivers to maintain stable employment.

The negative effects of hunger on academic performance are particularly interesting. A report on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (otherwise known as food stamps) released by the White House last year found that students' behaviors and academic performance varies based on how recently their families had received their SNAP benefits. One (still unpublished) paper cited in the White House report found that "test scores (standardized with an average of zero) are highest among students whose families received their benefits two to three weeks prior to the test score date.... These findings suggest that learning and test preparation in the weeks leading up to the test are disrupted by the fall off in food consumption at the end of the SNAP benefit cycle."

A second study (also not yet published) in the White House report found that disciplinary incidents among Chicago Public School students who receive SNAP benefits are significantly higher at the end of the month—when benefits are running—than at the beginning of the month. Students who aren't members of SNAP recipient families did not exhibit the same trend.

Past research on the effects of the National School Lunch Program is a bit mixed, and has been stymied by the fact that, until recently, free school lunches were often nutritionally sub-par. But the evidence on SNAP suggests that decreasing food insecurity in childhood has lasting benefits. In 2012, Schanzenbach, along with co-authors Hilary Hoynes and Douglas Almond, researched the long-term effects of the initial rollout of the food stamp program in the 1960s and '70s. They found that children with access to the program in utero and in early childhood exhibited lower rates of incidence of metabolic syndrome, were more likely to graduate from high school, exhibited higher earnings, and were less reliant on the social safety net as adults.

It's tough to imagine any politician actively opposing "feeding kids." But the research suggests another reason to support the administration's new plans: They may save the government money in the long-term thanks to both lower health-care costs and increased economic stability.

"A growing body of evidence suggests that the detrimental impact of food insecurity on health has important consequences for U.S. health care expenditures," Hilary Seligman wrote in her brief. "These costs are borne substantially by Medicare and Medicaid. Over the long term, prevention of food insecurity is likely to be more cost-effective than treating the consequences of food insecurity."