Show Me the Research! 10 Studies on the Importance of The National School Lunch Program

tomato scienceSince 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.

The NSLP is found to reduce obesity by 3.2 percentage points.

Participation in food NSLP, SBP and SNAP is associated with a 26.4% decrease in adolescent obesity.

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.

Children eating school meals eat a less energy dense meal compared to those who do not.

Participants in the NSLP consumed more calcium, vitamin A, Vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 compared to those who did not participate.

Children in low income areas consumed over half of their daily fruit and vegetables as part of the school meal.

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.

Consumption of vitamins and minerals, such as those consumed by participants in the NSLP, are important for educational performance.

NSLP participation can reduce food insecurity, which is found to negatively affect educational performance.

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