Mary Kate Winn: State policies keep food on the table

Thursday, April 13, 2017 - 5:03pm

As a public policy major, I’m well aware of all the research, thought and work that goes into creating policy. Good policy isn’t the result of exaggerated claims made on campaign trails to rile up crowds. Rather, it’s the outcome of experts and analysts examining a problem and coming up with creative responses based on the analysis of hard data. There is a disconnect between the kind of policy that gathers cheers in stadiums and the kind of policy that actually works well — and this disconnect seems to be expanding in the age of Trump. 

This dynamic has negative implications for successful implementation of good policy, which are compounded when legislators and presidents shift their focus from doing what is the best policy for their constituents to overzealously trimming budgets. Being frugal and conscientious with taxpayer money is essential, of course. But cutting programs that have proven themselves successful and that improve the lives of citizens should withstand budget cuts, even if they don’t get crowds cheering or don’t attract a lot of attention.  

On the national level, budget cuts to beloved programs often draw outrage, which can help insulate the programs from losing their funding or can attract outside donors. This can be seen in the case of Meals on Wheels, a program that provides healthy meals to senior citizens while checking in on their well-being, which was slated to lose funding on Trump’s budget proposal. This proposed cut drew national media attention and was bad press for the Trump administration. If Congress chooses to carry on with the decrease in funding for Meals on Wheels, it will likely face continued public backlash. Either way, the program saw a surge in donations and volunteers after the proposed cuts were announced, so it probably won’t suffer too much as a consequence. 

The same can’t be said for local programs and policy. There is less attention paid to state budget proposals, and there is less outrage when successful programs get cut. There are likely many reasons for this, such as the decline in local news reporting. A prime example of this lack of local interest is “10 Cents a Meal for School Kids and Farms,” a pilot program that “provid(es) schools with match incentive funding up to 10 cents per meal to purchase and serve Michigan-grown produce to an estimated 48,000 students in 16 grant-winning school districts.” The pilot program was implemented in September 2016, and “10 Cents a Meal” has already proven a worthwhile investment. Economically, it has increased business for local farmers, distributors and producers. Nutritionally, it has exposed school children to a wide variety of locally produced vegetables and improved their access to healthy food. 

Many studies have demonstrated the importance of childhood nutrition. Proper nutrition is necessary for fighting infections. Undernutrition can result in decreased cognitive functioning and activity levels, among other things. A healthy diet can offset health issues such as childhood obesity. Healthy eating habits are particularly critical in a school setting because, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, “Schools are in a unique position to provide students with opportunities to learn about and practice healthy eating behaviors.” The case for high-quality, nutritional food in schools is hard to ignore. Delivering this healthy diet to kids in a sustainable way that promotes the local economy? That’s just good policy. 

“10 Cents a Meal,” though, didn’t appear on Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget recommendation for the 2018 fiscal year. It remains to be seen if the program will make it into the final budget, which will be determined by the House and Senate. This is a program that is good for Michigan, and cutting it just wouldn’t make sense. 

National outrage over unnecessary budget cuts had an impact. Why can’t we take that anger to the state level? I implore everyone to get in touch with their state representatives and make it clear that programs like “10 Cents a Meal” shouldn’t be on the chopping block. Connecting farms to schools might not be the kind of policy that gets people riled up to attend rallies and vote, but it’s the kind of policy that makes positive changes in communities. That should count for something. 

Mary Kate Winn can be reached at winnm@umich.edu.