Date of Award

August 2020

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration


Amy E. Schwartz


doubly disadvantaged, school finance, school food, student poverty, universal free meals

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


This dissertation examines disadvantaged students through a unique and novel lens and investigates the effects of Universal Free Meals (UFM) – a program available to schools with sizable economically disadvantaged populations – on student well-being and district financial feasibility. UFM provides free meals to all students, regardless of household income, in an attempt to increase participation in school meals and ensure all students have access to nutritious meals. The Hunger Free Kids act of 2010 expanded the availability of UFM via the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). CEP allows schools, clusters of schools, or entire districts to adopt UFM if 40 percent or more of students are directly certified eligible for free lunch. The rapid expansion of UFM across the U.S. over the last decade has led to growing empirical evidence of UFM’s positive effect on student outcomes such as participation in school food, attendance, test scores, and disciplinary measures. This recent surge in research often characterizes a reduction in stigma as the mechanism through which UFM improves student outcomes. However, this characterization has yet to be empirically examined. As of 2019, a majority of eligible schools across the U.S. have adopted UFM via CEP. The widespread adoption of UFM causes policymakers to speculate if UFM has any unintended consequences, including deleterious effects on student health and district finances.

The first essay in this dissertation sheds light on the impact of UFM on student perceptions of school climate by exploiting the staggered adoption of UFM in New York City middle and high schools. Findings reveal that UFM improves perceptions of bullying, fighting, and safety at school. Moreover, students who would have received free meals in the absence of UFM begin to participate post UFM exposure. This suggests that UFM influences participation and likely perceptions for reasons other than reductions in prices. Another essay examines CEP adoption in districts across New York State. These findings offer new insights into how districts pay for UFM via CEP while investigating the possible deleterious effects of UFM on student obesity. While the reimbursement structure of CEP is more generous in comparison to other UFM provisions, some fear that CEP exacerbates school food deficits and forces districts to foot the bill. Furthermore, UFM critics worry that students may double up on meals, thereby increasing total caloric intake and contributing to childhood obesity. However, results indicate that UFM improves obesity rates – particularly in older grades and that, on average, federal reimbursements cover increases in expenditures due to meal fee revenue losses and the additional food expenditures that follow an increase in participation.

Economic disadvantage (ECD) is only one of many hurdles students encounter. The last essay in this dissertation descriptively illustrates student disadvantage by examining the prevalence and achievement gaps of the doubly disadvantaged – a group largely ignored in the education landscape. In addition to ECD, disadvantage in this context describes students with disabilities (SWD) and English language learners (ELL). Results indicate that a nontrivial share of students are doubly disadvantaged and that achievement gaps are largest among students that are both ECD and SWD. Furthermore, the essay discusses the implications of ignoring these students for district funding and federal accountability requirements.

While two of the three essays evaluate the effects of providing free school meals on student well-being and district finances among largely ECD populations, the third essay emphasizes the importance of recognizing the complexities of student disadvantage. Together, these essays offer insights into the identification of disadvantaged students and the effects of policies meant to improve circumstances among disadvantaged populations. This dissertation fills gap in the literature by providing profound reflection on the populations these programs serve, as well as the financial feasibility and effects of such programs on student well-being.


Open Access