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The Academic Effects of United States Child Food Assistance Programs—At Home, School, and In-Between  

Michael D. Kurtz, Karen Smith Conway, and Robert D. Mohr

The primary goals of food assistance programs are to alleviate child hunger and reduce food insecurity; if successful, such programs may have the added benefit of improving child academic outcomes (e.g., test scores, attendance, behavioral outcomes). Some U.S. government programs serve children in the home, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), others serve them at school, such as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP), and still others fall in-between, such as the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). Most empirical research seeking to identify the causal effect of such programs on child academic outcomes addresses the endogeneity of program participation with a reduced form, intent-to-treat approach. Specifically, such studies estimate the effect of a program’s availability, timing, or other specific feature on the academic outcomes of all potentially affected children. While findings of individual studies and interventions are mixed, some general conclusions emerge. First, increasing the availability of these programs typically has beneficial effects on relatively contemporaneous academic and behavioral outcomes. The magnitudes are modest but still likely pass cost-benefit criteria, even ignoring the fact that the primary objective of such programs is alleviating hunger, not improving academic outcomes. Less is known about the dynamics of the effects, for example, whether such effects are temporary boosts that dissipate or instead accumulate and grow over time. Likewise, the effects of recent innovations to these programs, such as breakfast in the classroom or increases in SNAP benefits to compensate for reduced time in school during the pandemic, yield less clear conclusions (the former) and/or have not been studied (the latter). Finally, many smaller programs that likely target the neediest children remain under- or un-examined. Unstudied government-provided programs include SFSP and CACFP. There are also a growing number of understudied programs provided primarily by charitable organizations. Emerging evidence suggests that one such program, Weekend Feeding or “Backpack” programs, confers substantial benefits. There, too, more work needs to be done, both to confirm these early findings and to explore recent innovations such as providing food pantries or “Kids’ Cafés” on school grounds. Especially in light of the uncertain fate of many pandemic-related program expansions and innovations, current empirical evidence establishes that the additional, beneficial spillover effects to academic outcomes—beyond the primary objective of alleviating food insecurity—deserve to be considered as well.