- Kindergarten students in schools with universal free school meals chalk up better attendance records than their peers without this access, according to a recent Syracuse University study analyzing the link between free school meals and students’ health and academic performance.
- Kindergarten attendance increased by 1.8 days per school year and chronic absenteeism dropped by 5.4 percentage points among those getting free school meals compared to those who did not, according to the study of 132,353 New York City kindergarteners.
- Those attendance benefits can continue years down the road, too, the study found. The chronic absenteeism disparity dropped over time, however — from a 5.4 percentage point difference in kindergarten to a 2.2 percentage point gap in 2nd grade.
Experts in school attendance and nutrition policies agree the Syracuse University study shows why it’s so important for districts to offer universal school meal programs.
Understanding the impact on school attendance is especially critical now as kindergarten chronic absenteeism rates are at an all-time high nationwide, said Hedy Chang, founder and executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that addresses absenteeism issues.
“Offering universal free meals might be even more important for addressing the still continued consequences of the pandemic, which have truly resulted in extraordinarily high levels of chronic absence in every state that we’ve looked at,” Chang said.
The Syracuse study also indicates that leaders should rely on chronic absenteeism and student income data to ensure the highest-need schools can offer free school meals, Chang said.
Now that legislative sessions are mostly underway, statewide efforts for universal school meal policies are continuing to gain traction. It’s unclear where congressional legislative efforts are headed on this front, but President Joe Biden’s administration set a goal in September to provide free school meals for 9 million more students by 2032 — eventually creating a pathway to universal school meals.
Not only can free school meals provide students with incentives to show up to class, but they can improve a student’s overall health, said Juliana Cohen, an associate professor and director of the Center for Health Inclusion, Research and Practice at Merrimack College, in Massachusetts.
Students from low-income backgrounds rely on free school meals, which in turn improve their health and spur them to go to school more often, Cohen said.
The Syracuse University study found no correlation between students’ weight and their access to free meals. “The lack of effects in this context is encouraging,” the study’s authors wrote.
Concerns that universal free meals would "harm student health by encouraging children to double-up on meals or switch to less healthy options have not borne out,” the study said.
This study follows other research that has found positive impacts of universal school meals, including better attendance and academic performance, Cohen said. They boost participation in school meals themselves, she said, as students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to eat a free meal when there's no stigma for doing so.
But not everyone is in favor of expanding free school meals to all.
When the federal pandemic-era waiver for universal school meals nationwide was set to expire in June, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, spoke against an expansion on the House floor. “Democrats used the permanent pandemic narrative to increase federal spending across the board, including within school meal programs. This has fueled inflation,” said Foxx, who is now chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
In a separate move on school meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month announced a proposal to slowly shift school nutrition standards on whole grains, sugar and sodium by 2029. Limits to added sugar and sodium would be gradually reduced, while schools would need to offer mostly whole grain products.
Cohen pointed to those proposed changes as an exciting science-based step.
She cited a 2020 study she co-authored that found students will eat lower sodium items if offered and that it’s feasible for schools to serve meals with less sodium.
“We also just need to be cognizant that change does take time," she said. "There will need to be some product reformulation, but the good thing about these updated standards is that it really will give schools and manufacturers time to adjust.”