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Let Them Eat Lunch: The Impact of Universal Free Meals on Student Performance

Amy Schwartz () and Michah W. Rothbart ()
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Michah W. Rothbart: Center for Policy Research, Maxwell School, Syracuse University, 426 Eggers Hall, Syracuse, NY 13244, https://www.maxwell.syr.edu/research/center-for-policy-research

No 203, Center for Policy Research Working Papers from Center for Policy Research, Maxwell School, Syracuse University

Abstract: 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.

Keywords: School Food; Academic Performance; Free Lunch; Childhood Obesity (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: H52 I24 I38 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Pages: 49 pages
Date: 2017-05
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-dcm, nep-edu, nep-hea and nep-ure
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