After-School Programs and the Efficacy of School-Related Nutrition Programs

Written by: Nancy Duchesneau

Primary Source:  Green & Write March 24, 2017

President Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, has faced criticism in the media for ostensibly claiming there is no evidence to suggest school-related nutrition programs benefit students’ academic achievement (see here and here). The specific statement that has come under fire is:

So, let’s talk about after-school programs generally. They’re supposed to be educational programs, right? And that’s what they’re supposed to do, they’re supposed to help kids who can’t – who don’t get fed at home, get fed so that they do better at school. Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that. There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually helping results, helping kids do better at school.

This statement and the resulting backlash both appear to be missing some vital information, however.

Neither the CACFP, the School Breakfast Program, nor the National School Lunch Program are on the chopping block.

The National School Lunch Program is a federally-assisted meal program providing free and reduced-price lunches to children based on family income. Children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free meals while children from families with incomes between 130%-185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals. The School Breakfast Program similarly provides breakfast to children from impoverished families. These programs are administered not by the US Department of Education, but by the US Department of Agriculture, and are not currently being cut in the proposed federal budget.

Furthermore, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which uses federal funds to provide nutritious meals and snacks to child care centers, Head Start programs, after-school care programs, emergency shelters, and other approved services is not being cut either. What is affected by the budget cuts, however, is the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, which supports before- and after-school and summer programs that often use CACFP to feed students. The concern, therefore, is not that funds for food are being cut, but that the programs often used by students to gain access to that food are being cut.

There is ample evidence to show the efficacy of school-related nutrition programs.

Assuming, however, that Mr. Mulvaney did intend to claim that school-related nutrition programs meant to feed impoverished students do not work, he would be wrong. The Centers for Disease Control summarizes evidence from several studies that show the association between participation in school-related nutrition programs and academic achievement, including increases in academic grades, increases in standardized test scores, reduced absenteeism, and improved cognitive performance.

Furthermore, the benefits of these programs cannot be measured by their effects on academic achievement alone. According to the American Psychological Association, poverty is “inextricably linked with rising levels of homelessness and food insecurity/hunger for many Americans and children are particularly affected by these conditions.” According to federal data, the number of homeless children in public schools has doubled since before the recession, totaling an estimated 1.36 million in the 2013-2014 school year. This raises humanitarian concerns that one could argue calls for providing food to the impoverished simply because of their need for it. Because schools are arguably the easiest access point to these students, school-related nutrition programs are in a particularly advantageous position to provide much-needed food to impoverished and homeless children.

After-School Programs Show Effects.

Assuming Mr. Mulvaney did not intend to make claims about school-related nutrition programs, but instead intended to comment on the efficacy of after-school programs in general, he would still be wrong. There is, of course, variability in the efficacy of after-school programs due to variability in the quality of after-school programs. Specific to the budget cuts, however, are the 21st Century Community Learning Centers previously mentioned. The 2013-2014 report shows these programs led to improvements in both academic achievement and in student behavior.

It is, admittedly, unclear what the specific effects of providing food to students in these programs are because studies focus on the effects of the programs as a whole. However, given that after-school programs are a point of access for food, it is likely that students with food insecurity are more likely to attend and benefit academically from these programs. Thus, while it is true that school-related nutrition programs are not being cut in the budget, the proposed cuts to the programs that provide access to school-related nutrition are likely to have detrimental effects on students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

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Nancy Duchesneau
Prior to joining the Education Policy Ph.D. program, Nancy utilized her B.S. in psychology by working as a private in-home tutor and a sub-contracted tutor in public schools. Currently in her third year, Nancy’s research interests stem from the belief that education must work in tandem with other policy areas, yet must also provide a base level of holistic support to all students. Topics of interest include social-emotional learning, in-school health programs, accountability, and equity.