Study: Free school meals can improve students' health
- Schools serving high numbers of children who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches (FRL) have increasingly been taking advantage of what is known as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act that eliminates the requirement that families apply for the subsidized meal program and makes school lunches free for all students.
- A new study from researchers at Georgia State University in Atlanta shows that CEP is also leading to increases in school meal participation as well as the percentage of students in the “healthy weight” range, with reduced body mass index scores for students in elementary and middle schools, and for students in urban areas as well as towns. The researchers used FitnessGram data, which includes body composition, from students in 2,145 schools in Georgia, but no significant health benefits were found for students living in rural areas or at the high school level.
- The researchers suggest that the CEP program needs to be “effective, feasible, and attractive to schools in all location types” in order to eliminate health disparities among disadvantaged children, and the results contrast those of past research, which found that school meals can lead to weight gain among students. But the authors say improvements in meal quality could explain the difference.
CEP participation has been increasing since it was introduced in 2014-15, from 14,000 schools in 2,200 districts to 18,800 schools in almost 3,000 districts the following year, according to the study. In addition to relieving schools of the need to collect paperwork from families, CEP can eliminate concerns over lunch shaming, because none of the students have to pay and therefore won’t be given an “alternative meal” if they can’t pay their lunch debt.
Addressing the “lunch shaming” issue for students, however, might raise concerns over “school shaming” for administrators, the researchers suggest. “If schools choose not to adopt the CEP because they feel that it will negatively affect their public perception, our results indicate that the choice may come at the expense of forgone improvements to the health of their students,” they write.
The cost of participating in the program is likely another factor determining whether schools participate. The provision allows schools with at least 40% of their students eligible for other government assistance programs to participate. But because the federal government only fully reimburses schools for meals if the percentage of students identified goes above 62.5%, schools that fall between those percentages might not be able to afford it. Some policymakers have suggested pushing the qualifying level to 60%.
Follow Linda Jacobson on Twitter