Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Students analyze food procurement, costs for corrections system

Wisconsin state agencies spend substantial amounts of money to procure food for hospitals, prisons and other facilities. Health First Wisconsin was curious about how nutritional guidelines could improve the diet and therefore the health of people served by these state agencies and of agency employees.

Students in the cost-benefit analysis course taught by David Weimer in fall 2013 analyzed the Wisconsin Department of Corrections' consolidated menu with nutritional standards. "We found equivalent annual net benefits of approximately $5.1 million for 10 years associated with adopting a four-week menu cycle that follows the U.S. Department of Agriculture's nutrition guidelines that emphasis on limiting portion size and calories," says Steph Mabrey, who prepared the analysis with Kayla Brenner, Michele Dickinson, Lacee Koplin, Brian Leung and Joann Wong.

These savings would accrue in part through a likely 5 percent decrease in body mass index, which is associated with a 7.4 percent decrease in health-care expenditures. The students also noted a correlation between nutritious diets and decreases in anti-social behavior. Food costs themselves increased more under the consolidated menu, 0.58 percent annually compared to 0.55 percent before 2005.

"Due to significant data limitations, we were unable to monetize key benefits associated with the policy, including decreased health-care costs and increased quality of life following release from prison, as well as decreases in substance abuse," Mabrey says. Non-monetized costs also include administrative expenses to plan and implement the consolidated menu, and the need for equipment and kitchen remodeling.

The students recommended that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections continue to use its USDA-based consolidated menu and that other state agencies use their analysis as a starting point for adopting nutritional standards for their own food procurement. They presented their findings at the Wisconsin prevention of Obesity and Diabetes meeting in February. "We were excited to hear from a panel of experts in this area and particularly interested in their thoughts regarding state procurement policies and future research in this area," Mabrey says.

The project client—2012 La Follette School alum Carly Hood at Health First Wisconsin—says: "The analysis benefited Health First Wisconsin by providing data on the potential impact state agency policy — however small — can have on health. As analyzed, the benefits of this particular policy appear overwhelmingly large. This information can and should be communicated as state procurement practices potentially become innovative methods for improving long-run population health."