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December 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 4

What Research Says About. . . / School Meals and Learning

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Students who eat a nutritious, balanced diet are better prepared to learn. How effectively do school food service programs advance this goal?

What's the Idea?

The U.S. Congress established the National School Lunch Program in 1946 "as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation's children" (Gunderson, 1971, p. 19). Federally subsidized meal programs have since expanded to include school breakfast as well as after-school and summer options. The rationale for these programs is that by improving nutrition, schools can offer all students better opportunities to succeed in school.

What's the Reality?

Although virtually all public schools provide lunch for students, fewer offer breakfast, and fewer still provide meals after school and during the summer. The ability of schools to offer meals other than lunch has been limited by high food costs, shrinking school budgets, and reduced federal reimbursements and funding to maintain school kitchens. At the same time, the economic downturn is putting more children at risk of missing meals at home.

What's the Research?

Researchers have tackled two main questions about school meals: Do students have adequate access to nutritious school meals? and, Do school meals affect student performance?

Access to Nutritious School Meals

Today, school lunches are taken for granted. Thirty-one million students participated in the National School Lunch Program in 2007–08, almost two-thirds of all students in the United States. Of these, more than 18 million were from low-income families—families who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2009). However, only one-half as many low-income students participated in the School Breakfast Program, and even fewer— roughly one in six—participated in summer nutrition programs. Participation rates differed greatly from state to state (Cooper, FitzSimons, Moos, & Hecht, 2009).
Although about 85 percent of schools participating in the National School Lunch Program offer breakfast, they typically serve this meal before school starts. As a consequence, school bus schedules keep many students from participating. Devaney and Stuart (1998) found that participation can increase as much as 400 percent if schools schedule breakfast as part of the school day. Making breakfast free for all students, thus reducing the stigma of getting a free meal, also increases participation (Murphy, 2007).
Increasing participation in after-school and summer nutrition programs requires different strategies because many of these programs are operated by nonschool sponsors (Cooper et al., 2009). A pilot study in rural Pennsylvania found that small changes in eligibility requirements and reductions in paperwork can increase the number of sponsors and sites offering programs and, consequently, provide more meal opportunities for students (Kirchner & Teed, 2008).
Researchers agree that the nutritional value of subsidized school meals has improved over the last decade; in fact, school lunches are often more nutritious than those brought from home or from private vendors, primarily because they serve milk instead of sugared drinks (Gordon et al., 2007). Still, these meals are too high in saturated fat and too low in fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—all products that are relatively expensive to provide. Moreover, an increase in competition from private suppliers has increased the amount of sugar (drinks and candy) and fat (chips and pizza) available to students (Gordon et al., 2007).

School Meals and Student Performance

It will come as no surprise to teachers that inadequate nutrition is associated with impaired academic and social development. In one study, researchers gathered data from low-income students before implementation of a universal free breakfast program and again six months later (Kleinman et al., 2002). Before the breakfast program, one-third of the students were "at nutritional risk" and had a history of lower attendance, tardiness, anxiety, and aggression. After six months, students who decreased their nutritional risk showed improvements in all these areas.
Although teachers and principals report differences in student behavior and performance as a result of access to school meals (Murphy, 2007), only a few studies have found clear statistical relationships between food insufficiency and academic and social development (Alaimo, Olson, & Frongillo, 2001). In most studies, differences in grades and test scores between students with adequate nutrition and those without it are small. However, a few studies have found significant differences for some groups. For example, Jyoti, Frongillo, and Jones (2005) found that food insufficiency in kindergarten girls predicted lagging social skills and lower test scores.

What's One to Do?

The importance of nutritious meals does not rely solely on statistical relationships that tie school meals to student behavior and performance. Research and common sense point to a range of benefits and also show that it is within schools' power to increase both student participation in school meal programs and the nutritional value of school meals.
The challenges are undeniable. More nutritious meals tend to cost more and to be less appealing to students. With reimbursements already lower than costs, reduced budgets mean that districts are less likely to participate in meal programs. When districts do participate, they can't afford the most nutritious meals. Rural districts, less able to benefit from bulk purchases, feel this bind acutely.
Still, educators can take action. Teachers and principals can urge their district leaders to press for higher national reimbursement rates. School leaders can arrange to serve school breakfast during the regular school day, identify students who may be receiving insufficient food and connect their families to local resources, help food service managers and cooks create meals that are both nutritious and appealing, reduce the number of or eliminate school vending machines, and encourage parents to sign up for meal programs. As the recession pushes more families to the brink, these actions become even more important.

Alaimo, K., Olson, C. M., & Frongillo, E. A. (2001). Food insufficiency and American school-aged children's cognitive, academic, and psychosocial development.Pediatrics, 108(1), 44–53.

Cooper, R., FitzSimons, C., Moos, K., & Hecht, B. (2009). Hunger doesn't take a vacation: Summer nutrition status report. Washington, DC: Food Research and Action Center. Available: www.frac.org/pdf/summer_report_2009.pdf

Devaney, B., & Stuart, E. (1998). Eating breakfast: Effects of the School Breakfast Program. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research. Available: www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/PDFs/eatbreakfast.pdf

Gordon, A., Fox, M. K., Clark, M., Nogales, R., Condon, E., Gleason, P., & Sarin, A. (2007). School nutrition dietary assessment study—III: Summary of findings. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research. Available:www.fns.usda.gov/ORA/menu/Published/CNP/FILES/SNDAIII-SummaryofFindings.pdf

Gunderson, G. W. (1971). The National School Lunch Program: Background and development. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Available: www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Lunch/AboutLunch/ProgramHistory.htm

Jyoti, D. F., Frongillo, E. A., & Jones, S. J. (2005). Food insecurity affects school children's academic performance, weight gain, and social skills. Journal of Nutrition, 135, 2831–2839.

Kirchner, J., & Teed, N. (2008). The Pennsylvania SFSP rural area eligibility pilot evaluation: Final report. Alexandria, VA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Nutrition Service. Available: www.fns.usda.gov/ORA/menu/Published/CNP/FILES/PASFSPRuralPilotSummary.pdf

Kleinman, R. E., Hall, S., Green, H. Korzec-Ramirez, D., Patton, K., and Murphy, J. M. (2002). Diet, breakfast, and academic performance in children. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 46(suppl 1), 24–30. Available: http://content.karger.com/ProdukteDB/produkte.asp?Doi=66399

Murphy, J. M. (2007). Breakfast and learning: An updated review. Current Nutrition and Food Science, 3, 3–36. Available: www.bentham.org/cnf/sample/cnf3-1/D0002NF.pdf

U. S. Department of Agriculture. (2009).National School Lunch Program: Participation and lunches served. Available:www.fns.usda.gov/pd/slsummar.htm

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