Story by Tovin Lapan; Video by Emrys Eller
GREENVILLE, Miss. — In March, President Trump revealed his “skinny budget,” a rough sketch of the nascent administration’s fiscal priorities and objectives that included deep cuts to education and nutrition programs. Budget chief Mick Mulvaney defended the move. “[The programs] are supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home so they do better in school,” Mulvaney said at a press conference on the day of the announcement. “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 in school.”
In Greenville, Mississippi, a town on the Blues Highway in the Mississippi Delta where every public school student receives free breakfast and lunch, Joan Rowe, director of the local Boys and Girls Club, heard that comment and immediately thought: “They should come down here.”
Rowe and her colleagues across the Delta are watching with keen attention as the federal government aims to slash vital programs and relax school meal standards that have helped combat pervasive community health concerns and poor academic performance in one of the nation’s neediest states.
The Trump administration’s proposed budget would nix the Greenville afterschool program and impose deep cuts in other areas that impact school meals and nutrition. The USDA, which administers numerous grants and programs that help feed needy children, is facing a budget cut of $4.7 billion, or 21 percent of its discretionary spending, while the Department of Education’s budget could fall by more than $9 billion. Even if Trump’s budget never passes, the administration has already put its stamp on school meals. Newly installed Department of Agriculture chief, Sonny Perdue, is rolling back school lunch nutrition standards.
The moves befuddle researchers, who cite a growing body of evidence demonstrating that more meals for school children, and specifically more nutritious meals, benefit kids in a myriad of ways, not only in the short term, but throughout their lives. Recent studies indicate the impact of healthier meals is even greater on low-income children.
“I think there is a disconnect between the policy makers and the reality in many places,” said Michele Leardo, assistant director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University. “They haven’t experienced what it’s like to go home and not get a meal. Some of these students are getting all three meals of the day at school — free breakfast, free lunch and an afterschool meal. I think they are out of touch with what these kids face, and how vital these programs really are.”
Many communities in the Mississippi Delta have better access to casinos, convenience stores and fast food than to grocery stores selling fresh fruits and vegetables. Sherry Jackson, who runs federal programs for the Greenville School District in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, views the proposed cuts with dismay. “[They] make me feel sick to my stomach,” she said.
“There is nowhere else for parents to turn; we are the safety net,” she added.
In Greenville, the people stitching that net together are loath to imagine what will happen if holes develop.
On a humid Wednesday afternoon in April, children wearing khaki pants and polo shirts color-coded to their grade level trickled into the Boys and Girls Club of Greenville, one of five sites for Greenville’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers, an afterschool program. The center faces closure if the Trump budget passes.
Inside, tutor Louise Cox helped a group of 16 elementary and middle school students with their homework and ran them through math and language exercises. In another room, an instructor directed high school students in computer and career placement lessons. A forest green pennant from Delta State University, a school in nearby Cleveland, was tacked to the wall alongside motivational posters, alphabet charts and multiplication tables. Rowe, the director, who was born and raised in Greenville, repeatedly reminds the children how important it is to graduate high school and move on to college, just as she did.
Rowe would also like to offer a lesson to the federal budget experts like Mulvaney. “I’d tell them to come out here and see what the children are faced with,” Rowe said “Not everyone is privileged. I remember I walked the kids over to the bank a while back to give them a lesson on banking. We walked in and the kids were amazed by the elevator — they’d never seen one before.”
Mississippi’s graduation rates and test scores have lagged behind the national average for years, but recently started to catch up. The four-year graduation rate was up to 82 percent in 2016, an improvement from 74 percent in 2012 and close to the national average of 83 percent. But in Greenville, where about 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the high school graduation rate is just 62 percent, one of the lowest in the state.
Greenville was once a prosperous and progressive city, but industry, including barge building and factory work, has slowly abandoned the area. Today the population is roughly 32,000, down from a high of 45,000 in 1990. The school district is shrinking with the community, and funding continues to decline. The district, held up as a model of integration when it became the first in the state to desegregate back in the 1960s, has become largely segregated again, with black children in public schools and white children in private ones. Today, 94 percent of Greenville’s public school students live in poverty.
“A lot of them are latchkey kids. They eat a lot of fast food and some of their parents don’t cook at all,” said Patricia Allen, nutrition director for Greenville School District. “It’s not like when I was a kid and you were taught how to cook, and maybe had fried chicken once a week as a treat. There is nobody at home for them. Nobody is providing food for them, period. They look forward to coming to school to get that meal. I see a lot of children that I’m sure are not getting the proper nutrition at home.”
Good nutrition is vital for kids, who have a high metabolic rate and are growing. The effects of hunger and malnutrition go far beyond a grumbling stomach and daydreams of pepperoni pizza during algebra class, potentially causing lasting physiological damage and reduced brain development. Low levels of iron and long-term food insecurity are linked to cognitive delays. When blood glucose levels are low, adrenalin, cortisol and other hormones are released, leading to feelings of agitation and irritability. When a child is hungry the body prioritizes vital needs, dedicating scarce calories to organ function and growth. Hunger in school children is linked to an inability to focus, lower grades, higher rates of absenteeism, and often leads to grade repetition.
An array of new research has reinforced previous studies showing school meals have a profound impact on students’ academic outcomes, attendance, and overall health. Initiatives that help the most needy, either through direct financial means or programs like free school lunch, have benefits that last decades — boosting income, health and other life outcomes. The federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers is one such program, offering academic help and an evening meal to mostly low-income children enrolled in underperforming schools. Under the president’s proposed 2018 budget, the program, which currently serves 1.8 million children through a $1.1 billion federal grant, would be eliminated.
Annual reports from the U.S. Department of Education have consistently found 21st Century improves grades, test scores, class participation and student behavior.
“The data and performance indicate that this broad-reaching program touches students’ lives in ways that will have far reaching impact,” report author Sylvia Lyles, director of the USED’s Office of Academic Improvement, concluded in the 2016 report.
During the 2014-15 school year, approximately half the students who regularly attend the 21st Century program improved their math and English grades. In Mississippi, more than one third of program participants increased their math and reading assessment scores, according to the report.
While the USED study did not compare 21st Century participants to those not enrolled in the program, a 2013 Texas study did. That report found significant benefits, particularly for high school students: After school participation was associated with higher test scores, and led to much higher rates of grade level progression for students in grades nine to 12. Middle school students enrolled in the program missed fewer days of school and had fewer disciplinary incidents.
In Greenville, after the homework session with Cox, the kids slurped up spaghetti and meatballs and a fruit cup around 5:30 p.m. Then they ran outside for recess while they waited for their evening pickup. Rowe and the Greenville Boys and Girls staff feed, tutor and provide recreation for 50 students.
Brenda Birkhead is one parent who leans on Rowe and the 21st Century Program. The single mother of 10-year-old LaNiya Birkhead, a fourth grader at Greenville’s Weddington Elementary School, works at a local clothing store.
“The 21st Century program really boosts the children,” she said. “I know my daughter is safe. I know when I pick her up she has been fed dinner, she’s had some exercise, and her homework is done.”
Birkhead makes $8.50 an hour, slightly above the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25. Mississippi has no state minimum wage. She works more than 30 hours per week, and often has to close the store at 8 p.m. and work weekend shifts.
“Without the Boys and Girls Club and programs like 21st Century, my back would be up against the wall,” she said.
Up the road in Cleveland, Mississippi, Shenika Maiden carefully observed the lunch time assembly line at Bell Academy, inspecting for waste and other inefficiencies. The nutrition and food services director for Cleveland School District, Maiden has overseen the recent evolution in the district’s school lunches. In single file, children grab their trays, choose between a banana and a fruit cup, and then receive green beans, mashed potatoes with gravy, a whole wheat roll, and hamburger steak.
“Shhhhhh. Listen. You hear that?” she asks. “They’re not talking. They’re not playing around. That means they’re eating.”
It’s a reassuring sound. Since the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act went into effect in 2012 with new nutrition standards for school meals, Maiden has been working to cut sodium and fried foods, and add whole grains, fruits and vegetables to the lunch trays.
Less than 10 years ago Bell Academy, an elementary school, was failing and facing a state takeover. In 2010, it was completely revamped with a new magnet math, science and health curriculum, a direct response to rising childhood obesity rates. Recently, the school has been getting B’s and C’s on its state report cards. Principal Sonya Swafford says the magnet program, particularly the health portion, which is backed by a patchwork of federal grants, has brought the school a sense of purpose and community. “It’s given us our own little limelight,” she said.
“In general, nutrition in the community is poor. There are high rates of poverty in the Delta, and many of our families receive SNAP benefits,” Maiden said, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps. “It’s a big issue. Many of the people who get SNAP buy the cheapest food items, junk food ... hot dogs.”
In the Mississippi Delta, where many of the communities have little access to affordable, fresh ingredients, the school meal program serves multiple purposes. Children who do not get enough nutrition at home get the food they need to learn and thrive, but the hope is that teaching healthy eating habits will also reverse a troubling trend. Mississippi has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the country, with almost 40 percent of the state’s children considered obese or overweight.
“Change was necessary. Maybe Michelle Obama went a little far with it, and it was a lot at one time, but it was needed.” Maiden said, referring to the former first lady’s championing of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. “Now we’re seeing a big jump in the quality of school meals. These children will be healthier in the future, if we continue the course. If they get used to eating this way at a young age, they’ll make that choice on their own when they’re older.”
The standards required by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act were recently dialed back by new USDA director Sonny Perdue, who referenced the need to add flexibility and reduce food waste.
“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue stated when he announced the change in May. “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition — thus undermining the intent of the program.”
After the implementation of the new rules, some states complained of waste and declining school lunch participation, but those figures have since rebounded. A 2016 Journal of the American Medical Association study assessing the Healthy Hungry-Free Kids Act found the new standards significantly improved meal quality in school cafeterias and had only a negligible impact on participation.
The nation’s public schools feed a lot of children — 30 million — and companies are willing to meet their needs. “The manufacturers have been great. Schools buy a lot of food, so they’ll accommodate us,” Maiden said.
Since the school meal standards went into effect, there have been significant increases in the amount of fruits and vegetables children are eating, coupled with an increase in fiber consumption and reductions in sodium and saturated fat intake, the JAMA study found. Another study, showed the percentage of calories from saturated fat in the average lunch fell from 9 percent to 6 percent after the changes.
“There’s definitely a lot of variance, but since 2012 the average nutritional floor of school lunches has moved up,” said Michael Anderson, an associate professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of a recent study on nutrition in school lunches.
Kids can still find junk food at school, but it comes with more limitations and alternative ingredients. Some schools are installing filtered, cooled water fountains and turning off soda machines until after the school day. Snacks at Bell Academy, available for an extra 50 cents, included whole grain brown rice crispy treats or reduced-fat Doritos. Next year, the district is partnering with Pizza Hut, which is using a new school-approved recipe incorporating low-fat cheese and a whole wheat crust.
Although the new standards have shown results, making nutritious meals that the children will eat, while also staying on budget, remains a challenge. The same study that lauded the lower levels of saturated fat and sodium raised concerns regarding lower amounts of calcium and Vitamin C.
“The hope is kids will take the [health] information home and share it with their families,” said Leardo, of NYU’s Institute for Education and Social Policy. “There are a lot of needy families that aren’t exposed to the best options and information for healthy eating. They live near bodegas and fast food restaurants, and don’t have easy access in their communities to healthy ingredients.”
Five years into the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, research shows kids at schools serving more nutritious meals are doing better academically. Anderson’s study found the California schools with healthier school lunches scored, on average, four percent higher on standardized tests. Also, the poorest students saw the most impact, with academic gains 40 percent higher for those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. The study determined healthier meals cost approximately $80 more per year per student; to achieve similar testing improvements through reducing class sizes by hiring more teachers would cost five times as much.
“As an education policymaker you have multiple levers you can pull to improve performance,” Anderson said. “If you’re looking for the most return for dollars spent, school meals is a good place to start.”
Sherry Jackson, the Greenville director for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers and other federal programs, has already had a glimpse of what would happen under the proposed cuts. During the 2016-17 school year the district lost nearly half its after school sites, representing spots for 250 children, due to a state accounting error that forced Mississippi to severely curtail participation in the program.
“I had parents calling me frantic, in tears,” Jackson said. “They had nowhere else to turn, and were very worried about what they would do. I think they felt punched in the gut after seeing their kids thrive in the program.”
It is communities like Greenville, with very few local resources to fall back on, that will see the deepest impact from any changes. “If it closes, I don’t know what I would do,” said Brenda Birkhead, LaNiya’s mom. “It would be devastating.”