Exploring the Influence of the National School Lunch Program On Children Using The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study

Year: 2003

Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Investigator: Dunifon, Rachel, and Lori Kowaleski-Jones

Institution: Cornell University

Project Contact:
Rachel Dunifon
Cornell University
Department of Policy Analysis and Management
295 MVR Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
Phone: 607-255-6535


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.