What Research Says About…
Jane L. David
School Meals and Learning
Students who eat a nutritious, balanced iet 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).
The economic downturn
is putting more children
at risk of missing meals
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,
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 opportu-