Universal (Free) School Meals Linked to Higher Test Scores

Photo credit: Oregon Department of Agriculture

In an important new study from the Maxwell School’s Center for Policy Research at Syracuse University, researchers found that state reading and math scores meaningfully increased among New York City middle schoolers receiving universal (free) school meals.

Most notably, this bump in test scores was significantly higher for kids who previously didn’t qualify for federal meal assistance. According to Chalkbeat, which first reported on the new study, this finding “could be because students from low-income families were more likely to be participating in the free or reduced-price lunch program already. In addition, students who didn’t previously qualify for subsidized meals may still have struggled to bring food every day.”

All of this provides further proof that the National School Lunch Program’s current three-tier reimbursement structure—using family income to decide which kids get schools meals for free, for a reduced price, or who must pay in full—simply isn’t meeting the needs of struggling families who just miss the cut-off for financial assistance. Indeed, as Chalkbeat reports, “[r]esearchers noted that many ‘non-poor’ students came from families with incomes that ‘barely’ exceeded the 185-percent mark of the federal poverty line.”

When coupled with recent public outrage over “lunch shaming,” this important new study offers yet another argument for offering all children school meals free of charge—just as we do with textbooks, bus transportation, and other integral aspects of the school day.

Which leads me to two other, related news items:

California Bans Lunch Shaming

Last Saturday, California governor Gavin Newsom signed into a law a comprehensive anti-lunch-shaming bill requiring that all children in the state now receive a reimbursable (hot) school meal, regardless of whether their families have an outstanding meal fee balance.

In other words: no more cold cheese sandwiches or other “meals of shame.”

Sanders and Omar Introduce Federal Universal School Meals Bill

This past Tuesday, Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, along with congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN), jointly introduced in Congress the Universal School Meals Program Act. The bill would provide free meals and snacks to all students, erase all existing school meal debt, increase the federal school meal reimbursement rate to encourage local food purchasing, and provide children with extra funding to pay for summer meals.

This bill seems unlikely to become law in the current Congress and presidential administration, but its mere introduction (and related national news coverage) can only help advance this important cause.


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