Giving Compass' Take:
- Matt Barnum reports that although there are no clear academic benefits from universal free school breakfast and lunch programs, the programs do help students and families.
- What role can you play in supporting programs like these that help children and their families?
- Read about how you can support the fight for school food justice.
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Maybe there is such a thing as a free lunch, after all.
Chalkbeat recently reported that a growing number of states — including California, Maine, and Michigan — are now offering breakfast and lunch at school to all students free of charge.
Statewide policies like these are new, but the practice of providing universal free meals isn’t. And researchers have been studying this for years. That means we have a good sense of what these state policies will mean for students, families, and schools.
In short, research suggests that universal school meal programs accomplish their main goal: expand access to breakfast and lunch at school. Relatedly, families with children at schools with universal meals are less likely to struggle to afford groceries. Free meals may also reduce lunch stigma and school administrative burdens.
Universal meals may create academic benefits, too: Some studies show that they improve students’ test scores or attendance rates. Here, though, the evidence is equivocal. Other studies do not show clear benefits or only find them for certain groups of students.
Universal meals expand access — including for poorer families
Universal free school meal programs do in fact increase the share of students who grab that slice of pizza or fruit cup. One national study found that the shift increased the number of breakfasts served by 38% and the number of lunches by 12%. Other research shows similar increases.
Free school meals help families afford food
Research also suggests that universal breakfast and lunch in school affect families’ grocery budget more generally.
One study found that the expansion of free school meals led to a small drop in nearby food bank usage. Another paper found that universal meals reduced families’ grocery bills by 5% each month. Similarly, it cut the share of families considered “food insecure” by 5%, including among families who were previously eligible for subsidized school meals.
Universal free meals may improve school climate
Advocates have long suggested that offering free meals for all reduces school meal–related stigma — which can come from peers or administrative “lunch shaming” due to unpaid meal debt.
There do not appear to be many studies on this, but one recent paper finds support for the idea.
Read the full article about universal school meal programs by Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat.