I can’t say anything bad about Virginia’s first lady, Dorothy McAuliffe. Her cause is admirable: ending childhood hunger. Her compassion seems entirely genuine. And it appears that she had been very effective, if effectiveness can be measured by the resources she has mobilized to advance her goals.
Writing in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed today, McAuliffe ticked off a series of accomplishments. Seven hundred Virginia schools now offer Breakfast after the Bell programs than did three years ago. State school breakfast funding has increased by $2.7 million during her husband’s administration. Schools served 10 million more breakfasts and two million more after-school meals and snacks than in 2004, while 37 more school divisions serve summer meals. Meanwhile, Virginia has built the capacity of the nonprofit sector such as food banks to help feed the poor.
But McAuliffe’s op-ed neglects to address a critical question: Has this activity contributed to childhood hunger getting better or worse? What exactly constitutes “hunger” anyway?
Here is what I fear: All these school and nonprofit programs are creating a moral hazard in which poor parents, secure in the knowledge that government and charities will pick up the slack, are spending less money on nutritional food for their children. While McAuliffe’s good intentions are unassailable, her op-ed offers no evidence whatsoever that children are any better off as a result.
As can be seen in the chart above, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as the food stamp program, increases payments based on family size. Maximum payments for the most destitute households — around $140 to $150 per child per month — are spartan. But they should be sufficient if the money is spent carefully. Part of the problem in America today is that food stamps are not spent wisely.
The best documentation comes from a study published in November 2016 by the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program. That study plumbed a vast reservoir of data assembled by “a leading grocery retailer” and accounted for 80% or so of the money that households spent through their SNAP cards.
Most notoriously, that study found that 9.25% of all expenditures by SNAP households went to “sweetened beverages,” mostly soft drinks. The New York Times used the data in a 2017 article to point out that PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and other food companies had lobbied heavily against efforts to prohibit the use of food stamps to purchase soft drinks and junk food. But the scandal is bigger than soft drinks. Money spent on sweetened beverages, prepared desserts, salty snacks, sugars, candy, juices, jams and jellies accounted for more than 22% of total food stamp expenditures at the grocery store. The actual percentage was likely higher because these numbers did not reflect expenditures, at neighborhood convenience stores where food offerings are heavily tilted toward soft drinks, snacks and other junk food.
Even if we don’t take convenience-store expenditures into account, food stamp recipients spend a higher percentage of their resources on junk food than non-recipients — about 23% compared to 20%. They also spend considerably more on the most expensive food category — meat, poultry and seafood, leaving less for healthy staples.
No wonder kids in poor neighborhoods are 2.7 times more likely to be obese than children from affluent families. The problem is not a lack of calories. The problem is the wrong kind of calories. Which raises the question: what kind of hunger are we talking about? Are poor children hungry because they’re not getting enough to eat — or are they consuming empty calories that temporarily satiate them but leave them feeling hungry later?
“Ending hunger in Virginia requires an ‘all of the above’ set of solutions,” McAuliffe writes. I would agree. But I would suggest that we’re not following an all-of-the-above approach. Schools are providing free breakfasts, free lunches, and afternoon snacks. Nonprofits are sending kids home on weekends with backpacks with food. Nonprofits support food pantries, soup kitchens, and emergency food programs. Charities raise funds to feed families on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The underlying assumption is that poor families lack the money to feed themselves, and that society must intervene to ensure that children are fed. But the ultimate responsibility rests with parents.
The headline of McAuliffe’s op-ed reads “End of childhood hunger is in sight.” She probably did not write that headline. Regardless, I will venture to say that it is dead wrong. Here is a counter-intuitive prediction: The more that well-intentioned government and charities do to end childhood hunger and absolve parents of primary responsibility for feeding their children, the more pervasive hunger will get.