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Let Them Eat Lunch: The Impact of Universal Free Meals

The National School Lunch Program is the second largest food and nutrition assistance program in the United States. Traditionally, the program provides free or reduced-price meals for eligible low-income students. But many schools have begun providing free lunch and breakfast for all students, regardless of income, a strategy known as Universal Free Meals. There is a hope that this universal approach will reduce the stigma around free school meals, address food insecurity, improve student achievement, and reduce administrative burden.

To understand if this hope has been realized, researchers Amy Ellen Schwartz and Michah W. Rothbart analyzed the universal program and academic performance in New York City middle schools. Their results are explained in Let Them Eat Lunch: The Impact of Universal Free Meals on Student Performance. They find that universal meals in New York City middle schools increases participation in school lunch and improves academic performance for both low-income and other students by statistically significant amounts. The programs had no significant impact on school attendance. The authors add that universal meals offer a cost-effective way to improve math and ELA test scores because the size of increase, measured in standard deviations, costs only $50 per pupil annually.