Expert Commentary

Offering free lunches for all students: Financial impacts on schools, families and grocery stores

As lawmakers discuss the pros and cons of schools offering free lunches and breakfasts to all students, regardless of income, it's important to know what the research says about the financial impacts.

universal free school meals lunch
Cafeteria employees discuss lunch preparation at a high school in Virginia, 2011. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Anti-hunger and child advocates have pressed state and federal legislators for years to allow all students, regardless of household income, to eat free lunches and breakfasts at school.

But the national call for universal free school meals has grown louder and more widespread amid news reports about school cafeteria workers shaming children with unpaid lunch debt and a growing body of research demonstrating the benefits of eating school meals, which must meet federal nutrition standards.

For 70-plus years, kids from lower-income families have been able to apply for and receive free or reduced-price meals under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, which President Harry Truman signed in 1946.

In 2014, the federal government increased the number of children receiving free meals by allowing schools in high-poverty areas nationwide to provide breakfast and lunch to their entire student population at no charge.

The option became available under the Community Eligibility Provision, a part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that was phased in over several years. Schools can serve all students free lunches and breakfasts if more than 40% of their students have been identified as low income, homeless or being in foster care.

During the 2019-20 academic year, 26 million students — 52% of public school enrollment — were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers various child nutrition programs, waived eligibility requirements for free school meals, allowing schools to serve meals to all students at no cost. But the option to provide free meals during the regular academic year expired at the end of June.

On June 25, President Joe Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022, which, among other things, gave kids access to free food over the summer.

Schools in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont will continue providing universal free school meals because lawmakers in those states decided to pick up the tab for expenses the federal government will no longer cover. Colorado might join them. In November, Colorado residents will vote on Proposition FF, which would establish a program allowing students statewide to eat for free at public schools.

As elected leaders in other parts of the U.S. consider adopting universal free meal programs, a key question they will likely ask is how the change will impact people’s pocketbooks. It’s important for journalists to know what the research says about the financial consequences for school districts, local businesses and households with and without children.

Below, we’ve gathered and summarized several academic studies published in recent years that investigate these issues. We plan to add new research as it becomes available.

For additional context, you may find it helpful to read a recent analysis examining universal free school meal programs’ effects on youth in areas such as academic achievement, health and school attendance. The paper, “Universal School Meals and Associations with Student Participation, Attendance, Academic Performance, Diet Quality, Food Security, and Body Mass Index: A Systematic Review,” synthesizes the results of 47 studies conducted in the U.S. and other countries.

For more background, check out our roundup of research, “School Meals: Healthy Lunches, Food Waste and Effects on Learning.” One of the studies we included suggests kids might eat more of the fruits and vegetables served with school lunches if lunch were scheduled after recess.

The National Center for Education Statistics is a good resource for data on the number and percentage of U.S. students eligible for free and reduced-price meals. There’s substantial variation by state. In New Hampshire and Delaware, fewer than 30% of kids qualified in 2019-20 compared with more than 70% in Mississippi, New Mexico and the District of Columbia.

Free lunches and breakfasts: Impacts on local businesses and households

The Effect of Free School Meals on Household Food Purchases: Evidence from the Community Eligibility Provision
Michelle Marcus and Katherine G. Yewell. Journal of Health Economics, July 2022.

When schools provide free lunches and breakfasts to all kids on campus, area households spend less money on groceries and lower-income families buy more nutritious food, this study indicates.

Food purchases decline by an estimated $11 per month, on average, among households with children located in the same zip code as the school offering universal free meals — regardless of whether those children attend that school, according to the analysis, conducted by Michelle Marcus, an assistant professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, and Katie Yewell, an assistant professor in the University of Louisville’s department of health management and systems sciences.

When Marcus and Yewell looked specifically at households with children who likely attend the school offering free meals, they found those families’ food expenditures fall as much as $39 a month, on average.

The researchers used data from the Food Research & Action Center and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to identify U.S. schools that participated in the Community Eligibility Provision program after its implementation nationally in 2014. To better understand how much money different households spend on food and what they buy, Marcus and Yewell examined data from the Nielsen Consumer Panel Dataset, which includes a variety of information collected annually from a panel of 40,000 to 60,000 U.S. households. The researchers looked at data gathered from 2004 to 2016.

Another key takeaway: The researchers learned that when a school introduces a universal free meals program, lower-income households with children located in the same zip code buy healthier foods. Marcus and Yewell write that they found “suggestive evidence of an improvement in their overall dietary quality by about 3 percent.”

The researchers did not investigate the causes of these food shopping changes. They suggest households that benefit directly from free school meal programs probably spend less money on breakfast and lunch foods.

They also discovered that offering universal free meals encourages more lower-income students to eat school meals. Not all kids who qualify for free food based on household income will participate in the National School Lunch Program. But a larger percentage of children who qualify for free meals based on income will eat free school meals when they’re offered to all students.

This indicates “the stigma of free school meals may be declining after universal access,” Marcus and Yewell write.

School Food Policy Affects Everyone: Retail Responses to the National School Lunch Program
Jessie Handbury and Sarah Moshary. National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2021.

When schools offer free lunches and breakfasts under the federal Community Eligibility Provision, it “causes households with children to reduce their grocery purchases, leading to a 10% decline in grocery sales at large retail chains,” this working paper finds. Grocery stores respond by cutting prices.

“A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the annual direct benefit of the [National School Lunch Program] for a household with children amounts to a 25% reduction in shopping costs,” write the authors, Jessie Handbury, an assistant professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sarah Moshary, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California, Berkeley.

The two researchers studied the effects of schools offering free lunches and breakfasts to all students by examining three sets of data. The National Center for Education Statistics provided data on U.S. schools that offered free meals under the Community Eligibility Provision from 2013 to 2016. The Nielsen Company’s Homescan project provided data on household food purchases from 2011 to 2016. The researchers also examined grocery prices and sales from 2011 to 2016, obtained from Nielsen’s Scantrack, which tracks data on weekly sales of individual products for more than 20,000 grocery stores nationwide.

Handbury and Moshary find that after a school introduces universal free meals, “households with school-aged children take fewer trips to and spend less money at grocery stores, especially large retail chains.”

Their analysis also suggests “stores near schools that are all eligible for the [Community Eligibility Provision] earn 2.9% lower revenues than those neighboring ineligible schools,” the authors write. “Estimates are larger in magnitude if we focus on the sales of lunch meats.”

Handbury and Moshary learned that individual chain grocery stores do not reduce prices in response to a local school introducing a free-meals-for-all program. Rather, retail chains adjust prices across stores as a response to multiple schools providing universal free meals in communities their chain stores serve.

“Consequently, some consumers enjoy lower prices even when their local school does not adopt the program,” the authors write.

How school spending, finances are affected

Universal Free Meals Associated with Lower Meal Costs While Maintaining Nutritional Quality
Michael W. Long, Keith Marple and Tatiana Andreyeva. Nutrients, February 2021.

The per-student cost of school meals dropped at large and medium-sized schools in the U.S. after they launched universal free meal programs, according to this study, which also finds the dietary quality of their school meals did not change.

At large and medium-sized schools serving 500 students or more, the full cost of providing free breakfasts to all students was $2.92 per child, on average. Large and medium-sized schools that did not participate in the program spent an average of $3.49 per pupil.

Lunch costs also fell. The full cost of providing lunches was $4.83 for each student at medium and large schools after they started feeding all kids on campus. Similarly sized schools that did not offer universal free lunches spent $5.50 per student, find the researchers, Michael W. Long,  an assistant professor in the George Washington University Department of Prevention and Community Health; Keith Marple of Brandeis University; and Tatiana Andreyeva, director of economic initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

The paper’s authors write that they had expected per-student costs to drop at medium and large schools due to economies of scale achieved by feeding larger numbers of children.

To measure potential changes in meal costs and dietary quality, the authors examined data from the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, a national study of school meal programs conducted for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food, and Nutrition Service during the 2014-15 academic year.

The authors focused on the 508 schools eligible to offer universal free meals based on their percentage of students who qualified, based on household income, for free and reduce-priced meals. Of those 508 schools, 103 provided universal free meals.

The researchers discovered that per-student meal costs rose at small schools, or those with fewer than 500 students, after implementing a universal free meal program. Small schools offering breakfast to all kids on campus spent $4.03 per child, on average, compared with $3.85 per child at schools that did not participate in the program.

Per-pupil lunch costs remained the same at $6.30.

The authors write that in 2014-15, the first year the Community Eligibility Provision became available nationally, it appears “the economy of scale was not yet available for CEP participating small schools.”

When they analyzed data about the dietary quality of school meals, they learned it did not change after schools implemented universal free meals, despite reductions in per-meal costs for medium and large schools.

Paying for Free Lunch: The Impact of CEP Universal Free Meals on Revenues, Spending, and Student Health
Michah W. Rothbart, Amy Ellen Schwartz and Emily Gutierrez. Education Finance and Policy, May 2022.

The financial impact of providing free lunches for all students differs for urban and rural schools in New York, researchers conclude. Rural schools statewide tended to lose money when they implemented universal free meal programs prior to the pandemic. Meanwhile, schools in more heavily populated regions did not.

“In fact, [the Community Eligibility Provision program] increases the size of school food program deficits in rural districts by $30 per pupil,” write the researchers, Michah W. Rothbart and Amy Ellen Schwartz of Syracuse University and Emily Gutierrez of the Center on Education Data and Policy at The Urban Institute. “Conversely, CEP helps close school food program deficits in metro and town districts.”

Rural schools are more likely to face other financial hurdles. Before expanding their free meal programs, many would need to expand the size of their cafeterias and hire additional staff.

To better understand the financial impacts of universal free meal programs, the researchers analyzed a variety of data, including school revenues and expenditures and school meal participation rates, for 698 New York school districts from 2010 to 2017.

Rothbart, Schwartz and Gutierrez learned that schools lost local revenue when they started participating in the Community Eligibility Provision program because children received meals for free. And food expenses grew as more kids chose to eat school breakfasts and lunches.

However, federal meal funding also increased for these schools.

“Overall, federal revenues more than compensate for changes in local school food revenues and expenditures, with no effect on instructional expenditures,” the researchers write. “Thus, the ‘price’ of [universal free meals] seems to be largely paid by the federal government, with a notable exception of rural districts.”

‘It’s Just So Much Waste.’ A Qualitative Investigation of Food Waste in a Universal Free School Breakfast Program
Stacy A Blondin, Holly Carmichael Djang, Nesly Metayer, Stephanie Anzman-Frasca and Christina D. Economos. Public Health Nutrition, December 2014.

This small study, based on interviews and focus groups, focuses on breakfast food waste at 10 elementary schools in a large, urban school district in the U.S. One of the main takeaways: Students at these schools, all of which offer universal free breakfast, throw out a lot of the milk and fruit they receive each morning.

Some of the potential reasons: Kids often don’t have time to finish their breakfasts. Many dislike some of the foods served — oatmeal bars and plain milk, for example. Also, young children have a tough time eating oranges that have not been peeled.

The paper does not estimate the amount of waste. Rather, it offers a qualitative view of the issue — perceptions of food waste, attitudes toward it and possible explanations for why children throw away so much of their school breakfast.

A team of researchers from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy conducted interviews and focus groups with a total of 235 people — 86 parents, 44 teachers, 85 students, 10 cafeteria managers and 10 elementary school principals. More than 70% of participating parents, teachers and cafeteria managers were Hispanic.

One teacher, when asked about food waste, “suggested that more than half of [milk] cartons offered were discarded as ‘The number of milks we’ve — I have 20, only 21 students right now. But I would say, on the average, we throw away at least 15 milks a day,’” the researchers write.

A teacher also noted that serving an expired item to one student can be problematic for a whole classroom.

“Foods in such conditions were cited as provoking participant skepticism and mass disposal,” the researchers write. “As one teacher explained: ‘One of the kids will notice, and then everyone looks, and then – they won’t eat it, they’ll throw it away. Even if it’s a day late, they won’t, they’re not eating it.’”

Study participants shared a variety of ideas for reducing food waste, including cutting fruit before serving it and saving unused foods for future consumption.

A cafeteria manager said serving breakfast in class has helped reduce waste at their school. Because students must stay in their classrooms after eating, they don’t rush through breakfast so they can go outside.

“Kids are not throwing their trays away automatically like they did [in the cafeteria], because they want[ed] to go out and play on the yard,” the cafeteria manager told researchers.

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