Metro Atlanta Policy Lab for Education
Effect of Free School Meals on BMI and Student Attendance
Does access to free school meals impact children’s health?
We estimate the effect of new access to universal free school meals resulting from the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) on child BMI and attendance. Under the CEP, schools with 40 percent or more of students who qualify for free school meals can offer free breakfast and lunch to all students. With administrative data from a large school district, we use student-level BMI measures from the FitnessGram to compare within student outcomes before and after the implementation of the CEP across CEP-eligible and non-eligible schools. We find that exposure to the CEP increased BMI by about 0.07 standard deviations, equal to a 2-percentage point increase in the reference distribution or nearly 3 pounds. Effects were driven by students previously eligible for free lunches, suggesting a potential “stigma” reducing effect or increased program awareness may have a role. We also find that the program led to an increase in the share of “overweight” students but not in obesity. In addition to the CEP’s effects on student weight outcomes, we also estimate the program’s effect on absences but do not find that the CEP led to a statistically significant change in number of days absent from school.
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