School Meals Spurred Schooling Gains (But Not Health)

By Debra Viadero — June 22, 2010 2 min read
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Getting federally subsidized school lunches as a child doesn’t seem to yield any special health benefits in the long-run, but it just might lead to pay-offs in education.

At least that’s the conclusion that Peter Hinrichs draws in a study in the current issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Hinrichs, a researcher at Georgetown University’s public policy institute, takes advantage of changes in the federal funding formula that have occurred since the National School Lunch Program’s 1946 inception to study how its availability affected students later on in life.

A little background is in order here: The federal program apparently began in response to Congressional testimony in 1945 by General Lewis B. Hershey, who was then a major general in charge of the country’s Selective Service System. He told lawmakers that 16 percent of the Selective Service registrants in World War II were rejected or placed in a limited service class, largely due to problems stemming from malnutrition. (This was news to me. I never thought of the program as a national security issue.)

In keeping with that tradition, Hinrichs in his study uses several waves of national survey data to examine the same same sort of health indicators the military used back in World War II: height, weight, overall health, and whether an individual experiences any health limitations. He also looks at percentages of young men who are rejected for military service in states with varying degrees of school-lunch availability. And he concludes that, overall, former recipients of subsidized school lunches are no healthier than non-recipients by the time they reach adulthood.

For education, however, he found that the positive effect could be quite significant. Increasing the percentage of students exposed to the program in a given state by ten percentage points was linked to an added .365 years of schooling for women and a full year for men.

Hinrichs speculates that the poor health results may be explained by the fact that the health benefits that children received as a result of the program simply faded away by the time they grew up. Also, the program in its early days was not specifically targeted to poorer children as it is now, so some participating students were probably getting good meals at home before the program even began.

The researcher thinks the good education results, on the other hand, might be because parents began to send their children to school more often after the lunch program began. The more students went to school, the better able they were to persist in school year after year.

What I want to know is: If a school-lunch program leads to educational gains, what do we do to improve students’ health outcomes? Teach algebra?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.