The school environment plays an important role in children’s diets and overall health, and policies for universal free school meals have the potential to contribute to positive child health outcomes. This systematic review evaluates studies examining the association between universal free school meals and students’ school meal participation rates, diets, attendance, academic performance, and Body Mass Index (BMI), as well as school finances. A total of 47 studies were identified. Nearly all studies examining universal free school meals found positive associations with school meal participation. Most studies examining universal free school meals that included free lunch found positive associations with diet quality, food security, and academic performance; however, the findings of studies examining only universal free breakfast were mixed. Research findings were similarly mixed when examining attendance as an outcome. Concerns about adverse outcomes on student BMI were not supported by the literature; in fact, several studies detected a potentially protective effect of universal free school meals on BMI. Research examining the impact of universal free meals on school finances was limited, but suggest that lower-income school districts in the U.S. may have positive financial outcomes from participation in universal free school meal provisions. Additionally, providing free meals to students may be associated with improved household incomes, particularly among lower-income families with children. Further research is needed to examine the financial implications of universal free meals for both school districts and families. Overall, universal free school meals may have multiple benefits for students and countries should consider universal free school meal provisions with strong nutrition guidelines.
Universal School Meals and Associations with Student Participation, Attendance, Academic Performance, Diet Quality, Food Security, and Body Mass Index: A Systematic Review
Improving Access to Free School Meals: Addressing Intersections Between Universal Free School Meal Approaches and Educational Funding
Free and reduced price meal application data are used to allocate billions of dollars annually in education funding. However, schools serving universal free meals under the Community Eligibility Provision meal service option or USDA’s COVID-19 waivers do not typically collect school meal applications. The loss of this data has caused … More
Schools play a vital role in promoting children’s health and well-being. In the United States, schools contribute significantly to children’s overall diet quality and can provide up to half of their daily calories, especially among children from low-income families. Providing healthy school meals for all is a policy opportunity to … More
Strengthening the Impact of USDA’s Child Nutrition Summer Feeding Programs During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic
To address food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, utilization of the USDA child nutrition summer feeding programs has drastically increased. Given the unprecedented use of the summer feeding programs, this research brief will (1) explain the meal pattern requirements and select operational differences between the summer feeding programs and the … More