Nutrition and Cognitive Achievement: An Evaluation of the School Breakfast Program

Year: 2009

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

Investigator: Frisvold, David E.

Institution: Emory University

Project Contact:
David E. Frisvold
Emory University
Department of Economics
1602 Fishburne Drive
Atlanta, GA 30322-2240
Phone: 404-727-7833


Well-nourished children perform better in school. Because food insecurity, food insufficiency, and nutrition deficiencies are more prevalent for poor children than nonpoor children, low-income children are less likely to acquire the educational benefits from better nutrition. In the United States, food assistance programs have been established to improve the well-being of poor and low-income children. Although substantial evidence shows that nutrition interventions for young children in developing countries lead to increases in cognitive achievement and greater educational attainment, evidence of the influence of food assistance programs in the United States on cognitive achievement is limited. This study investigated the impact of eating breakfast through the School Breakfast Program (SBP) on cognitive achievement.

The primary difficulty in determining the impact of participation in the SBP on cognitive achievement is that participation in the program is determined primarily by the choices of schools and families, and the determinants of these choices may also be related to the cognitive achievement of students. This study used State mandates to account for the endogeneity of participation in the SBP. To increase participation in the SBP, many States mandated that schools must provide breakfast through the SBP if the percentage of students in the school who are eligible for free and reduced-price breakfasts exceeds a set threshold. A small difference in the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price breakfasts around these State-mandated thresholds may lead to a large change in the likelihood that a school offers breakfast through the SBP. Using a regression discontinuity design, we compared the academic achievement of students in schools where the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price breakfasts is just below the mandated threshold with the academic achievement of students in schools where the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price breakfasts is just above the threshold.

Data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort of 1998-99 (ECLS-K) were used to estimate the impact of the SBP. The ECLS-K includes information about the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price breakfasts; whether the school provides breakfast through the SBP (responses from a school administrator); whether the student eats school breakfast (from a parent); and direct cognitive assessments of the student in reading, mathematics, and science. The analysis for this project focused on the third and fifth grade waves. Information about the State mandates is provided by the Food Research and Action Center.

The results from this study suggest that State mandates requiring schools to participate in the SBP once the percentage of the schools’ students eligible for free and reduced-price breakfasts exceeds a specific threshold have been effective in increasing the participation of schools in the SBP and the consumption of breakfast within schools. Exceeding the State threshold increases the probability that a school participates in the SBP by 21 percentage points and the probability that a student eats breakfast as part of the SBP by 8 percentage points. The results also suggest that these State mandates do not influence reading achievement, although this relationship is not estimated precisely, but do increase math and science achievement. Thus, there is some evidence that the improved nutrition through SBP participation increases cognitive achievement.

Further results demonstrate that State mandates requiring schools to offer breakfast do not increase consumption of breakfast within schools among low-income students. Instead, the increase in the provision of school breakfasts benefits students whose family income exceeds the free- and reduced-price-eligibility criteria.

Direct inquiries about this study to the Project Contact listed above.