Expert Commentary

School meals: Healthy lunches, food waste and effects on learning

A collection of research on school meals, including cafeteria food waste, effects on academic performance and efforts to improve school lunch quality.

(U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Policymakers pay a lot of attention to the meals served in public schools. In the midst of a nationwide childhood obesity epidemic, lawmakers are working to improve the nutritional value of foods and beverages served on campus. Some research suggests healthier lunches lead to higher test scores and that many kids rely on school meals as their main source of food.

The federally funded National School Lunch Program helps education leaders gauge the needs of a school. Students who are most likely to eat meals prepared in school cafeterias are from lower-income households and qualify for free- or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches. The percentage of students receiving subsidized meals is often used to measure a community’s poverty. Some education funding is earmarked specifically for schools where a large proportion of students get free- or reduced-price meals.

Nationally, 51.3 percent of public school students were eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches in 2012-13 – up from 38.3 percent in 2000-01, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The states with the largest proportion of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches in 2012-13 were Mississippi (71.7 percent), New Mexico (68.2 percent) and Louisiana (66.2 percent).

This collection of academic research on school meals looks at the link between lunch quality and academic performance, the effectiveness of efforts to improve school meals and the amount of food waste in campus cafeterias.

Other helpful resources include fact sheets on the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture releases annual reports on the amount the federal government pays for school meals. A 2016 survey by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) tracks trends related to school meals, including how schools handle students with cafeteria debts. SNA, a professional organization, released a statement in 2017 on “school lunch shaming.”



School meals and learning


“School Lunch Quality and Academic Performance”
Anderson, Michael L.; Gallagher, Justin; Ritchie, Elizabeth Ramirez. Working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, 2017. No. 23218.

Abstract: “Improving the nutritional content of public school meals is a topic of intense policy interest. A main motivation is the health of school children, and, in particular, the rising childhood obesity rate. Medical and nutrition literature has long argued that a healthy diet can have a second important impact: improved cognitive function. In this paper, we test whether offering healthier lunches affects student achievement as measured by test scores. Our sample includes all California (CA) public schools over a five-year period. We estimate difference-in-difference style regressions using variation that takes advantage of frequent lunch vendor contract turnover. Students at schools that contract with a healthy school lunch vendor score higher on CA state achievement tests, with larger test score increases for students who are eligible for reduced price or free school lunches. We do not find any evidence that healthier school lunches lead to a decrease in obesity rates.”


“Food for Thought: The Effects of School Accountability Plans on School Nutrition”
Figlio, David N.; Winicki, Joshua. Journal of Public Economics, 2005. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2003.10.007.

Abstract: “With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, school accountability is now federal law, continuing the recent trend of states implementing significant accountability systems for schools. This paper studies an unusual yet powerful school response to accountability systems. Using disaggregated school lunch menus from a random sample of school districts in Virginia, we find that schools threatened with accountability sanctions increase the caloric content of their lunches on testing days in an apparent attempt to boost short-term student cognitive performance. Moreover, we find that the schools that responded the most along these dimensions experienced the greatest improvements in standardized test scores.”


“Not Just for Poor Kids: The Impact of Universal Free School Breakfast on Meal Participation and Student Outcomes”
Leos-Urbel, Jacob; Schwartz, Amy Ellen; Weinstein, Meryle; Corcoran, Sean. Economics of Education Review, 2013. DOI: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2013.06.007.

Abstract: “This paper examines the impact of the implementation of a universal free school breakfast policy on meals program participation, attendance, and academic achievement. In 2003, New York City made school breakfast free for all students regardless of income, while increasing the price of lunch for those ineligible for meal subsidies. Using a difference-in-difference estimation strategy, we derive plausibly causal estimates of the policy’s impact by exploiting within and between group variation in school meal pricing before and after the policy change. Our estimates suggest that the policy resulted in small increases in breakfast participation both for students who experienced a decrease in the price of breakfast and for free-lunch eligible students who experienced no price change. The latter suggests that universal provision may alter behavior through mechanisms other than price, highlighting the potential merits of universal provision over targeted services. We find limited evidence of policy impacts on academic outcomes.”


School food waste


“Nutritional, Economic, and Environmental Costs of Milk Waste in a Classroom School Breakfast Program”
Blondin, Stacy A.; et al. American Journal of Public Health, 2017. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303647.

Results: “Of the total milk offered to School Breakfast Program participants, 45 percent was wasted. A considerably smaller portion of served milk was wasted (26 percent). The amount of milk wasted translated into 27 percent of vitamin D and 41 percent of calcium required of School Breakfast Program meals. The economic and environmental costs amounted to an estimated $274,782 (16 percent of the district’s total annual School Breakfast Program food expenditures) and 192,260,155 liters of water over the school year in the district.”


“Younger Elementary School Students Waste More School Lunch Foods than Older Elementary School Students”
Niaki, Shahrbanou F.; et al. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.08.005.

Conclusions: “Overall, younger students in elementary schools (K-Gr-1) consumed less of the foods they selected for their lunch meals, and wasted more than older elementary school students. Future studies should investigate why younger children wasted more food and potential strategies to reduce food waste by younger students.”


“‘It’s Just So Much Waste.’ A Qualitative Investigation of Food Waste in a Universal Free School Breakfast Program”
Blondin, Stacy A.; et al. Public Health Nutrition, 2015. DOI: 10.1017/S1368980014002948.

Results: “Stakeholders perceived food waste as a problem and expressed concern regarding the amount of food wasted. Explanations reported for food waste included food-related (palatability and accessibility), child-related (taste preferences and satiation) and program-related (duration, food service policies, and coordination) factors. Milk and fruit were perceived as foods particularly susceptible to waste. Several food waste mitigation strategies were identified by participants: saving food for later, actively encouraging children’s consumption, assisting children with foods during mealtime, increasing staff support, serving smaller portion sizes, and composting and donating uneaten food.”


“School Lunch Waste among Middle School Students: Implications for Nutrients Consumed and Food Waste Costs”
Cohen, Juliana F.W.; et al. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2013. DOI:  10.1016/j.amepre.2012.09.060.

Conclusions: “There is substantial food waste among middle school students in Boston. Overall, students’ nutrient consumption levels were below school meal standards, and foods served were not valid proxies for foods consumed. The costs associated with discarded foods are high; if translated nationally for school lunches, roughly $1,238,846,400 annually is wasted. Students might benefit if additional focus were given to the quality and palatability of school meals.”


Free and reduced-price meals


“Concentration of Public School Students Eligible for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch”
Report from the National Center for Education Statistics, Updated 2017.

Summary: “In school year 2014–15, nearly half of Hispanic and Black public school students, one-third of American Indian/Alaska Native students, and one-quarter of Pacific Islander students attended high-poverty schools. In contrast, 17 percent of students of two or more races, 15 percent of Asian students, and 8 percent of White students attended high-poverty schools.”


“Low-income Children’s Participation in the National School Lunch Program and Household Food Insufficiency”
Huang, Jin; Barnidge, Ellen. Social Science & Medicine, 2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.12.020.

Abstract: “Assessing the impact of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) on household food insufficiency is critical to improve the implementation of public food assistance and to improve the nutrition intake of low-income children and their families. To examine the association of receiving free/reduced-price lunch from the NSLP with household food insufficiency among low-income children and their families in the United States, the study used data from four longitudinal panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP; 1996, 2001, 2004, and 2008), which collected information on household food insufficiency covering both summer and non-summer months. The sample included 15,241 households with at least one child (aged 5–18) receiving free/reduced-price lunch from the NSLP. A dichotomous measure describes whether households have sufficient food to eat in the observed months. Fixed-effects regression analysis suggests that the food insufficiency rate is .7 (95 percent CI: .1, 1.2) percentage points higher in summer months among NSLP recipients. Since low-income families cannot participate in the NSLP in summer when the school is not in session, the result indicates the NSLP participation is associated with a reduction of food insufficiency risk by nearly 14 percent. The NSLP plays a significant role to protect low-income children and their families from food insufficiency. It is important to increase access to school meal programs among children at risk of food insufficiency in order to ensure adequate nutrition and to mitigate the health problems associated with malnourishment among children.”


Moving to healthier options


“Healthier Standards for School Meals and Snacks: Impact on School Food Revenues and Lunch Participation Rates”
Cohen, Juliana F.W.; et al. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2016, Vol. 51. DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2016.02.031.

Conclusions: “Schools experienced initial revenue losses after implementation of the standards, yet longer-term school food revenues were not impacted and school meal participation increased among children eligible for reduced-price meals. Weakening the school meal or competitive food guidelines based on revenue concerns appears unwarranted.”


“Effect of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act on the Nutritional Quality of Meals Selected by Students and School Lunch Participation Rates”
Johnson, Donna B.; Podrabsky, Mary; Rocha, Anita. JAMA Pediatrics, 2016. DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3918.

Results: “After implementation of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, change was associated with significant improvement in the nutritional quality of foods chosen by students, as measured by increased mean adequacy ratio from a mean of 58.7 (range, 49.6-63.1) prior to policy implementation to 75.6 (range, 68.7-81.8) after policy implementation and decreased energy density from a mean of 1.65 (range, 1.53-1.82) to 1.44 (range, 1.29-1.61), respectively. There was negligible difference in student meal participation following implementation of the new meal standards with 47 percent meal participation (range, 40.4 percent-49.5 percent) meal participation prior to the implemented policy and 46 percent participation (range, 39.1 percent -48.2 percent) afterward.”


“Lunch, Recess and Nutrition: Responding to Time Incentives in the Cafeteria”
Price, Joseph; Just, David R. Preventive Medicine, 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.11.016.

Conclusions: “Our results show the benefits of holding recess before lunch and suggest that if more schools implement this policy, there would be significant increases in fruit and vegetable consumption among students who eat school lunch as part of the National School Lunch Program.”


“Nutrient Content of School Meals Before and After Implementation of Nutrition Recommendations in Five School Districts Across Two U.S. Counties”
Cummings, Patricia L.; et al. Preventive Medicine, 2014. DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.03.004.

Results: “School districts in both counties made district-wide changes in their school breakfast and lunch menus. Menu changes resulted in a net reduction of calories, sugar, and sodium content offered in the meals. Net fewer calories offered as a result of the nutrition interventions were estimated to be about 64,075 kcal per student per year for LAC [Los Angeles County, California] and 22,887 kcal per student per year for SCC [Cook County, Illinois].”


Farm-to-school efforts


“Daily Access to Local Foods for School Meals: Key Drivers”
Ralston, Katherine; et al. Report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, 2017. EIB-168.

Abstract: “Farm-to-school programs began in the 1990s and have been encouraged by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) through grant funding, technical assistance and changes to school meal procurement regulations. In 2012, USDA’s Farm to School Program was formally established to improve access to local foods in eligible schools. Today, more than 4 in 10 school districts report serving local foods or implementing other farm-to-school activities. To examine progress toward USDA’s goal of daily availability of locally produced foods for all students and to identify potential targets for technical assistance, this report uses data from the 2013 Farm to School Census to measure the prevalence of school districts that serve local food daily and the characteristics of those districts.”


School meals as a main source of food


“The Contribution of the USDA School Breakfast and Lunch Program Meals to Student Daily Dietary Intake”
Cullen, Karen Weber; Chen, Tzu-An. Preventive Medicine Reports, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.11.016.

Abstract: “In the United States, the National School Breakfast (SBP) and School Lunch Program (NSLP) meals are provided for free or at a reduced price to eligible children, and are a nutrition safety net for low income children. Consuming both meals could provide 58 percent of daily intake. This paper evaluates the contribution of SBP and NSLP meals to the dietary intakes of 5-18 year old children participating in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) from 2007 through 2012. The participants completed 24-hour dietary recalls. Least-square means and standard errors of the mean for energy and food group intakes for the total day and by school meal, and the percent of daily energy and food groups contributed by school meals were computed by analysis of covariance, with BMI, ethnicity, sex, age and poverty level as covariates. Of the 7,800 participating children aged 5-18 years in the entire dataset, 448 consumed both SBP-NSLP meals on a weekday. Almost one-half (47 percent) of the day’s energy intake was provided by the two school meals. For the major food groups, the contribution of school meals ranged from between 40.6 percent for vegetables to 77.1 percent for milk. Overall, these results provide important information on contribution of the SBP and NSLP meals to low income children’s daily dietary intake.”


School breakfast


“Expanding the School Breakfast Program: Impacts on Children’s Consumption, Nutrition and Health”
Schanzenbach, Diane Whitmore; Zaki, Mary. Working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014. No. 20308.

Abstract: “School meals programs are the front line of defense against childhood hunger, and while the school lunch program is nearly universally available in U.S. public schools, the school breakfast program has lagged behind in terms of availability and participation. In this paper we use experimental data collected by the USDA to measure the impact of two popular policy innovations aimed at increasing access to the school breakfast program. The first, universal free school breakfast, provides a hot breakfast before school (typically served in the school’s cafeteria) to all students regardless of their income eligibility for free or reduced-price meals. The second is the Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) program that provides free school breakfast to all children to be eaten in the classroom during the first few minutes of the school day. We find both policies increase the take-up rate of school breakfast, though much of this reflects shifting breakfast consumption from home to school or consumption of multiple breakfasts and relatively little of the increase is from students gaining access to breakfast. We find little evidence of overall improvements in child 24-hour nutritional intake, health, behavior or achievement, with some evidence of health and behavior improvements among specific subpopulations.”


School meals vs. packed lunches


“Eating School Lunch Is Associated with Higher Diet Quality among Elementary School Students”
Au, Lauren E.; et al. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.04.010.

Results: “Students who ate school breakfast had higher total fruit (P=0.01) and whole fruit (P=0.0008) scores compared with students who only ate breakfast obtained from home. Students who ate school foods had higher scores for dairy (P=0.007 for breakfast and P<0.0001 for lunch) and for empty calories from solid fats and added sugars (P=0.01 for breakfast and P=0.007 for lunch).”


“Nutritional Comparison of Packed and School Lunches in Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten Children Following the Implementation of the 2012–2013 National School Lunch Program Standards”
Farris, Alisha R.; et al. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 2014. DOI: 10.1016/j.jneb.2014.07.007.

Conclusions: “Packed lunches were of less nutritional quality than school lunches. Additional research is needed to explore factors related to choosing packed over school lunches.”


Length of lunch break


“Amount of Time to Eat Lunch Is Associated with Children’s Selection and Consumption of School Meal Entrée, Fruits, Vegetables, and Milk”
Cohen; Juliana F.W.; et al. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2016. 10.1016/j.jand.2015.07.019.

Conclusions: “During the school year, a substantial number of students had insufficient time to eat, which was associated with significantly decreased entrée, milk and vegetable consumption compared with students who had more time to eat. School policies that encourage lunches with at least 25 minutes of seated time might reduce food waste and improve dietary intake.”

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