Document Type

Working Paper


Fall 12-2017


School Food, Academic Performance, Free Lunch, Childhood Obesity, Universal Free Meals




Working Papers Series


Food Studies | Health Policy | Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration


This paper investigates the impact of extending free school lunch to all students, regardless of income, on academic performance in New York City middle schools. Using a difference-in-difference design and unique longitudinal, student level data, we derive credibly causal estimates of the impacts of “Universal Free Meals” (UFM) on test scores in English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics, and participation in school lunch. We find UFM increases academic performance by as much as 0.059 standard deviations in math and 0.083 in ELA for non-poor students, with smaller, statistically significant effects of 0.032 and 0.027 standard deviations in math and ELA for poor students. Further, UFM increases participation in school lunch by roughly 11.0 percentage points for non-poor students and 5.4 percentage points for poor students. We then investigate the academic effects of school lunch participation per se, using UFM as an instrumental variable. Results indicate that increases in school lunch participation improve academic performance for both poor and non-poor students; an additional lunch every two weeks increases test scores by roughly 0.08 standard deviations in math and 0.07 standard deviations in ELA. Finally, we explore potential unintended consequences for student weight outcomes, finding no evidence that UFM increases probability of obesity or overweight, or BMI. Results are robust to an array of alternative assumptions about sample and specifications.



Additional Information

Working paper no. 203

Additional comments:

“Only one-third of public school students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch take part in the program. What is stopping them? Stigma.” - David Sandman, President & CEO, New York State of Health Foundation “What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.” - Rep. Paul Ryan, 54th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives “Free meals should go only to those students who are eligible for free meals, and reduced-price meals should go only to students eligible for reduced-price meals. Other students should be eligible for neither. This obvious and commonsense point has been lost.” - Daren Bakst and Rachel Sheffield, Heritage Foundation

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Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.



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