President Trump’s preliminary 2018 budget — his “blueprint to make America great again” — includes $9 billion in cuts to the U.S. Department of Education, a 13 percent decrease from last year. Among the programs targeted for elimination is the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, or CCLP, which provides after school activities — many of which partner with other programs to provide snacks and meals — for students in low-income areas and underperforming schools.
On Thursday, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters that such programs have not been shown to improve academic achievement. “They’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home [to] get fed, so they do better in school,” Mulvaney said. “Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that.”
For many Americans, using taxpayer money to help feed the 6.4 million children living in households without proper access food requires no further justification. But even setting altruistic notions aside, Mulvaney’s assertion does not hold up under scrutiny. Numerous studies have uncovered compelling links between nutrition and educational performance.
One 2005 study published in the Journal of Nutrition, for example, presented longitudinal data collected from children as they moved from kindergarten through the third grade. It found that food insecurity among those ages six to 12 was associated with poorer math scores, more absences, grade repetition, tardiness, anxiety, and aggression. A more recent study, conducted by University of Iowa economist David Frisvold and published in 2014 found that the availability of the national School Breakfast Program, which serves low-income children, was closely correlated with improved student achievement on a variety of measures. Using data from the National Assessment of Education Progress, the largest representative assessment of student achievement in the U.S., Frisvold found that over the course of a student’s tenure, elementary schools offering the SBP produced math scores that were 25 percent higher than would otherwise be expected.
Edward Frongillo, the director of Global Health Initiatives at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, suggested that the importance of making sure that young students have enough to eat is axiomatic. “There may be discussion about the best mechanisms to do that,” Frongillo said, “but certainly if children are hungry, then they’re not going to learn.”
While Trump’s budget doesn’t specifically identify this or any other U.S. school nutritional programs for elimination, the cuts could threaten a variety of before- and after-school programs where meals and snacks are served, and this, critics say, would hit students who are already at risk particularly hard.
“The programs are the venue by which those sorts of services are offered,” said Alison Wineberg of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. She declined to comment on Mulvaney’s statement specifically, other than to say the CCLP “has a tremendous amount of data and research demonstrating years of success.”
According to CCLP’s most recent annual report, the U.S. Department of Education funded over 9,500 programs during the 2013-2014 school year. Performance data shows that for elementary school students, nearly 37 percent of regular attendees showed improvement in mathematics and English grades, while 50 percent showed improvement in homework completion and class participation.
Still, school nutrition programs are only part of the puzzle. Trump’s proposed budget would also include a $150 million cut to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which assists families in purchasing specific foods with federally-mandated nutritional content. A 2015 study found that participation in this program was associated with benefits to cognitive development and that those benefits carried on throughout the child’s school years.
In a statement, the National WIC Association said the new budget may still provide enough funding to cover current caseload needs, which have declined from 9.2 million in 2010 to 7.3 million today, but the group was not without other worries.
“Despite the WIC funding level, we are concerned about cuts to other domestic programs and what these cuts might mean for WIC families,” the statement said.