What are the benefits of free school meals? Here's what the research says.
Despite being a highly developed nation, the U.S. is experiencing a rise in children experiencing poverty and hunger — a rise that could be reduced by ensuring that every student receives free meals at school, experts say.
A recent report from the Census Bureau reveals that the child poverty rate skyrocketed from 5.2% in 2021 to 12.4% in 2022. One catalyst for this shift was the expiration of the enhanced version of the child tax credit program, which offered parents a yearly tax credit (and some much-needed financial relief) to help offset strains like rising unemployment at the start of the pandemic. The temporary pandemic-era Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, which millions of families were relying on, also expired this year, while federal school meal waivers ended in 2022.
Activists say that losing these resources has undermined the progress made toward helping families in need.
“Last year’s annual report saw a record decrease in child poverty because of these expansions,” says Teddy Waszazak, the universal school meals campaign manager at Hunger Free Vermont. “[It] shows just how important and effective programs like the child tax credit, universal school meals and SNAP are in reducing poverty and hunger.”
Stripped of these crucial supports, many parents are struggling to feed their families and depend on free school meals for their children. So why is the concept of universal free school meals still so controversial?
What the research says about school-provided meals
Better health and more food security: A 2023 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that children who received onsite meals and snacks provided by their child care center had higher chances of being food-secure, were more likely to be in good health and had lower odds of being admitted to a hospital from an emergency department than those eating meals and snacks from home.
Improved performance at school: A 2021 report from the Brookings Institution analyzed the impact of a program that offered schoolwide free meals and found an improvement in math performance (particularly among elementary and Hispanic students) at school districts where few previously qualified for free meals. Researchers also saw a significant reduction in suspensions among certain students.
Improved test scores and no negative impacts on weight or BMI: A report from the Center for Policy Research at the Maxwell School reinforces the findings that universal free meals have a positive effect on the English language arts and math test scores of all students. Researchers also found no evidence that universal free meals cause any increase in student weight or body mass index.
What support for free school lunch looks like
In 2021, California and Maine became the first two states to pass legislation for universal free lunches at public schools. This school year, six others joined them: Minnesota, New Mexico, Colorado, Vermont, Michigan and Massachusetts. But it doesn’t end there.
“Right now, we know at least 25 states have either formed coalitions or introduced legislation for free school meals,” says Waszazak, noting that both Connecticut and Nevada are working to extend their school meal programs. Illinois, meanwhile, passed legislation to provide free school meals, though there’s been concern over how schools can provide those meals without additional funding.
And in other areas, like at Broward County Public Schools in South Florida, there are ongoing pilot programs making sure students don’t go hungry.
“Universal free breakfast has been in place since 2014. It was successful right away, and it increased the number of kids that ate breakfast with us,” says registered dietitian Casie Maggio, program manager for nutrition education and training at Broward County Public Schools, the sixth-largest district in the nation. This year they’ve adopted a universal lunch pilot program, and she says they’re already seeing more students enjoying school lunches.
Why it matters
Experts say that providing free school meals is vital not only from a financial perspective, but from a health standpoint too.
“There have been numerous studies that have concluded that students perform better academically, behaviorally and emotionally after consuming nutritious meals during the school day. We see this in our schools every day,” Maggio tells Yahoo Life.
“The lack of consistent access to adequate quantity and quality food for a healthy, active life has been shown to increase risks for iron deficiency anemia, asthma, tooth decay, stunted growth and overweight due to intake of high-calorie foods that are low in vitamins and minerals,” says Krystal Hodge, an assistant professor in food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Hodge says hunger keeps students from being able to focus on learning.
“In a study of 500 low-income parents and their children ages 13 to 18 conducted by No Kid Hungry in 2017, 59% of the children surveyed reported coming to school hungry,” says Hodge. “Research has shown that students at nutritional risk are more likely to skip breakfast, and have poor attendance, to be late [and] to show behavioral problems in school.”
Hodge says a big challenge that remains is that many families who aren’t eligible for income-based assistance still need help obtaining food, including school lunch.
“Offering universal free school meals reduces financial and social barriers to participation, including the stigma associated with receiving free meals that can be negative, even at this age,” she notes.
So what does it take to ensure all schoolchildren are fed?
Every school district and every state has a different process to go through to pass universal school meals, but persistence, collaboration with other vested interests and a vast well of research and data seem to be the most important factors.
“It took four years for the Vermont legislature to pass a permanent universal school meals bill. But Hunger Free Vermont, the School Nutrition Association of Vermont and the Vermont Farm to School Network had been collaborating for a decade before that to lay the groundwork for this effort,” says Waszazak. That groundwork included research and data-gathering to prove that universal meals reduce child hunger while yielding better outcomes for students and even improving local farm economies.
Although a bill was introduced just before the pandemic, state-level advocacy in Vermont slowed down when the federal government stepped in to fund universal meals for all students across the nation. Vermont activists were able to extend the universal school meals program for another year to gather data about the positive impact on students and the state as a whole, which later helped convince the legislature to pass the now permanent program.
Waszazak says the most prevalent criticism of the program is that it provides free meals to affluent families who can afford to pay. He disagrees for a number of reasons, including that universal school meals are one key piece of education equity.
“We do not ‘means’ test for students to have access to [other school resources], nor should we for school meals,” he says.
What can parents do?
To the parents, educators and activists who are hoping to bring universal school meals to other areas, Waszazak says: “Organize and build coalitions! It was much more than a student issue — we engaged teachers, school nutrition professionals, school boards, principals and superintendents, farmers, pediatricians, parents and more. This allowed us to build a campaign that was rural and urban, in schools and out, and tri-partisan.”
Parents who don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch are still encouraged to apply, as this helps determine how much funding schools receive and how many meals they can subsidize. Those who can afford to do so can also help wipe out school lunch debt.
Hodge recommends parents write letters to their school’s superintendents and congressional representatives. She adds, “If there is an opportunity to be part of your school’s wellness committee, this is a great opportunity to allow your voice to be heard.”