This study examined the effects of participation in the National School
Lunch Program (NSLP) on changes in children's behavior, test scores, and
body weight, and whether these effects differ by gender. The NSLP serves
approximately 28 million children each school day with estimated expenditures
in 2002 of $6.1 billion. Results from this study can assist policymakers
in understanding the role of the NSLP in influencing child health, academic
well-being, and social development.
Most previous work on the NSLP has focused on how participating in the
program influences children's nutritional intake, finding some evidence of
increased intakes of some vitamins, minerals, and fats. Previous research
has not examined thoroughly how the NSLP influences other outcomes,
such as test scores, body weight, or social adjustment. Nor has previous
work on the NSLP examined how sub-groups of children may respond
differently to the program. Previous research by the authors investigated the
associations between food insecurity, NSLP participation, and children's
well-being, and found that participation in the NSLP did not significantly
impact these outcomes. However, that study was limited by the use of only
1 year of data on children.
The authors used data from the 1998 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-
Kindergarten Cohort, a nationally representative sample of approximately
22,000 children who were enrolled in roughly 1,000 kindergarten programs
during the 1998-1999 school year and were followed through their first
grade year in 1999-2000.
Because children who participate in the NSLP may differ in unobservable
ways from those who do not, the authors used a first-difference model that
relates changes in children's participation in the NSLP to changes in child
outcomes between kindergarten and first grade. The model controlled for
all time-invariant factors that may be associated with the likelihood that a
child participates in the NSLP.
The analysis showed that receiving a school lunch is associated with an
increase in children's math and reading scores. No effects of NSLP participation
on children's body weight or behavior problems were found.
Looking separately by gender revealed that receiving a school lunch is
particularly beneficial for boys' reading scores, but is not associated with
improved test scores for girls.
The results from these analyses provide insight into the ways in which a
widely used food assistance program may influence the well-being of U.S.
children. In general, participating in the National School Lunch Program
can lead to improvements in the test scores of boys between kindergarten
and first grade.