Universal free lunch is linked to better test scores in New York City, new report finds

Offering all students free lunch helps boost academic performance, a new report, which looked at meal programs in New York City middle schools, shows. 

The study, out of Syracuse University’s Center for Policy Research, assessed the impact of universal free lunch on students who previously didn’t have access to such a meals program. 

Researchers found “statistically significant” bumps in reading and math state test scores once students attended schools with universal free lunch. One way to understand those score bumps: They were equivalent to 6-10 weeks of learning for students who did not qualify or sign up for free and reduced price lunch and about half of that for students who were part of the lunch program, the paper said.   

“I think that is the big takeaway — that if we make lunch free, kids do better in school,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, who co-wrote the paper, published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 

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Researchers studied schools that implemented schoolwide free lunches from 2010 to 2013, before Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration slowly began offering them to all middle schools and before the city decided to offer free lunch to all public school students in 2017. At the time, more than 70 percent of city students were already eligible for free lunch, but advocates charged that many students steered clear of the benefit because of the stigma attached to enrolling in the program. 

The study also evaluated the effects of universal free lunch programs on individual students — and found greater improvements among children who did not come from low-income families. That 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. Researchers noted that many “non-poor” students came from families with incomes that “barely” exceeded the 185-percent mark of the federal poverty line. 

Putting in place a universal free lunch program may contribute to “a reduction in stigma” for taking part, Schwartz said. 

Researchers found no link between free lunch and attendance, nor between free lunch and student obesity. A study out of California last year found that increasing the nutritional value of school meals can lead to modest gains in test scores. (The Syracuse study did not take nutritional value into account.) 

Previous research on the city’s free breakfast had no clear evidence on academic performance. That study, which Schwartz conducted alongside another group of researchers, also found low participation rates in that program. The new research comes as no surprise to Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, a group that pushes for access to nutritious food. 

“Whether previously eligible or newly eligible for school food, many students’ families are struggling financially to make ends meet,” Accles said. “So the fact that more students are eating and getting well-balanced nutritious meals, it would seem at least logical that would have a positive impact on academic performance.”