Nutrition Isn't the Only Thing Kids Gain From Free School Meals

March 19th 2015

Laura Donovan

Many of us have been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and a new study from the University of Iowa confirms its value. The research reveals that children who participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's School Breakfast Program (SBP) test better in science, math, and reading than kids who don't partake in the program. 

"These results suggest that the persistent exposure to the relatively more nutritious breakfast offered through the subsidized breakfast program throughout elementary school can yield important gains in achievement," David Frisvold, study researcher and assistant professor of economics in the Tippie College of Business, told Science Daily.

Many schools are required to offer free breakfast if overall enrollment consists of a certain number of students who match the income eligibility requirements. Frisvold studied the impact of the SBP by comparing the academic performance of U.S. low-income schools participating in the program and schools that don't offer free breakfast because they have just enough students who don't qualify for SBP. The schools that participated in the SBP had higher academic performances, and the longer the school offered free breakfast, the better it fared academically. Math test scores saw a 25 percent spike for participating schools.

The SBP started nearly 50 years ago to provide "nutritionally needy" students with healthy options. To qualify, student household earnings must be at or below Income Eligibility Guidelines, which factor household size and income.

Angela, a mother of three in Los Angeles, who preferred to only be identified by first name, told ATTN: that her elementary school girls appreciate the variety of food and experiences that come with the SBP. "My daughters enjoy breakfast at school," Angela said. "Their school provides healthy choices for them, including fruit and yogurt, and it's a great way for them to start their day."

In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama streamlined the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act to provide healthy options in SBPs and beyond. In 2012, an updated rule to the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs required most schools to make whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fat-free milk, and low-fat milk more available to students. The changes, which were recommended by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, also aimed to reduce sodium, trans fat, and saturated fat consumption in kids. Michelle Obama has also been a champion of healthier eating in general, with a focus on providing students healthier meals to combat childhood obesity. Last year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found a decrease in obesity levels of low-income preschoolers in nearly 20 states and territories. Low-income children have a higher chance of becoming obese than their peers who aren't low-income.