Since childhood obesity has tripled over the past thirty years, critics of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) have suggested that the program contributed to this trend. Since the program serves nearly 32 million children daily, and operates in over 100,000 of the approximately 130,000 schools (public and private) nationwide, it is an easy target. Yet, there is a vast body of research identifying the positive aspects of the program. To begin with, the article “Why Education Researchers Should Take School Food Seriously,” by Marcus B. Weaver-Hightower (Educational Researcher 40(1):15-21) expounds on multiple arguments as to why school food is important for healthy education environments.
The following list highlights research pertaining to three specific points as they relate to students and the impact of the NSLP on their health and education: obesity, nutrient intake, and academic achievement and performance.
Point 1: Participation in the NSLP does not lead to childhood obesity, and may even reduce it.
There is no association between weight and participation in NSLP.
- Hofferth, Sandra L. and Sally Curtin. 2005. “Poverty, Food Programs, and Childhood Obesity.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 24(4):703-726.
The NSLP is found to reduce obesity by 3.2 percentage points.
- Gundersen, Craig, Brent Kreider, and John Pepper. 2011. “The Impact of the National School Lunch Program on Child Health: A Nonparametric Bounds Analysis.” Journal of Econometrics 105:79-91.
Participation in food NSLP, SBP and SNAP is associated with a 26.4% decrease in adolescent obesity.
- Roy, Manan, Daniel Millimet, and Rusty Tchernis. 2012. “Federal Nutrition Programs and Childhood Obesity: Inside the Black Box.” Review of Economics of the Household 10:1-38.
Point 2: Participation in the NSLP is associated with a more balanced diet.
Children receiving a free or reduce price meal eat 10.8 more servings of fruit, 5.6 more serving of carrots, 5.2 more servings of other vegetables, and 3.1 more servings of green salad per week.
- Howard, Larry L. and Nishith Prakash. 2011. “Do School Lunch Subsidies Change the Dietary Patterns of Children From Low-Income Households?” Contemporary Economic Policy 30(3):362-381.
Children eating school meals eat a less energy dense meal compared to those who do not.
- Briefel, Ronette R., Ander Wilson, and Philip Gleason. 2009. “Consumption of Low-Nutrient, Energy-Dense Foods and Beverages at School, Home, and Other Locations Among School Lunch Participants and Nonparticipants.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109(2):S79-S90.
Participants in the NSLP consumed more calcium, vitamin A, Vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 compared to those who did not participate.
- Gleason, Philip M. and Carol W. Suitor. 2003. “Eating at School: How the National School Lunch Program Affects Children’s Diets.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 85(4):1047-1061.
Children in low income areas consumed over half of their daily fruit and vegetables as part of the school meal.
- Robinson-O’Brien, Ramona et al. 2010. “Associations Between School Meals Offered Through the NSLP and the SBP and Fruit and Vegetable Intake Among Ethnically Diverse, Low-Income Children.” Journal of School Health 80(10):487-492
Point 3: Participation in the NSLP can lead to improved educational outcomes and behavior.
Increasing ADP by 10% can lead to an additional semester of schooling for women and a full year of schooling by men.
- Hinrichs, Peter. 2009. “The Effects of the National School Lunch Program on Education and Health.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 29(3):479-505.
Consumption of vitamins and minerals, such as those consumed by participants in the NSLP, are important for educational performance.
- Taras, Howard. 2005. “Nutrition and Student Performance at School.” Journal of School Health 75(6):199-213.
NSLP participation can reduce food insecurity, which is found to negatively affect educational performance.
- Howard, Larry L. 2010. “Does Food Insecurity At Home Affect Non-Cognitive Performance at School? A Longitudinal Analysis of Elementary Student Classroom Behavior.” Economics of Education Review 30(1):157-176
The free lunch program reduces food insecurity by at least 1.4 percentage points.
- Gundersen, Kreider, and Pepper (2012). See full citation above.
Andrew Hanks, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs