Study: Free School Meals Linked to Reduction in Childhood Obesity

02 April 2024

Research published in March found that a free meal program in schools was connected with a reduction in childhood obesity in the United States.

Anna Localio and Jessica Jones-Smith from the University of Washington are two of the researchers who studied the health effects of nutrition-related policies. Their study was published last month in the medical publication Pediatrics.

The two wrote in The Conversation about their research on a federal program called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). That program, started in 2014, permits schools in high-poverty areas to provide free meals in the morning and noon to all their students.

FILE - In this Friday, April 5, 2019 photo, a student buys lunch in the cafeteria at Burlington High School in Burlington, Vermont. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)
FILE - In this Friday, April 5, 2019 photo, a student buys lunch in the cafeteria at Burlington High School in Burlington, Vermont. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

History of free school meals

In 1946, the U.S. created the National School Lunch Program aiming to protect the health and well-being of American children. Participating schools were required to provide free or reduced-price meals at noon, called lunches, to children from eligible families. Eligibility is determined by income based on federal poverty levels.

The School Breakfast Program came in 1966. It provides free, reduced-price, and full-price breakfasts, or meals in the morning, to students.

The Community Eligibility Provision permits all students in a school to receive free breakfast and lunch, instead of determining eligibility by individual families. Entire schools or school systems are eligible for free lunches if at least 40 percent of their students are directly eligible to receive free meals.

Localio and Jones-Smith say the CEP increases school meal participation by "reducing the stigma" linked to receiving free meals.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government expanded the program to more school systems across the country. By the 2022-23 school year, over 40,000 schools were participating, an increase of more than 20 percent over the prior year.

Research on the effects of free meals

The researchers examined whether providing free meals at school through CEP was connected with lower childhood obesity before the pandemic.

To do this, they measured changes in obesity from 2013 to 2019 among 3,531 California schools in poorer communities. The researchers used over 3.5 million body mass index (BMI) measurements of students in fifth, seventh and ninth grade that were taken yearly and combined at the school level. BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.

The researchers looked at differences between schools that participated in the program and eligible schools that did not. They followed the same schools over time, comparing obesity among students before and after the policy change.

The researchers found that schools participating in the CEP program had a 2.4 percent reduction in levels of obesity in students compared with eligible schools that did not participate in the program.

Localio and Jones-Smith wrote that "even small improvements in obesity levels are notable because effective strategies to reduce obesity at a population level remain elusive."

They added that because obesity affects poor and minority children more than others, this policy could help to reduce health inequalities.

The CEP likely reduces the amount of obesity by substituting up to half of a child's weekly diet with healthier food, the research found.

Research has shown that school meals can be healthier than meals from other sources, including meals at home. One study found that school meals provide the best diet quality of any major U.S. food source.

At the same time, the free meals save about $4.70 a day per child or $850 per year. For low and middle-income families, this could result in savings that can be used for other healthy goods or services.

Expanding access to school meals

Childhood obesity has been increasing over the past several decades. Obesity often continues into adulthood and is linked to many health conditions and early death.

Growing research shows the benefits of universal free school meals for the health and well-being of children. Along with the study of California schools, other researchers have found an association between universal free school meals and reduced obesity in Chile, South Korea and Britain.

Studies have also linked the CEP program to improvements in school performance and reductions in suspensions.

Universal free meals policies may slow the rise in childhood obesity rates, "but they alone will not be enough to reverse these trends," Localio and Jones-Smith say. Alongside free meals, identifying other strategies to reduce obesity among children is necessary to address this public health issue, they say.

I'm Dan Friedell.

And I'm Anna Mateo.

Anna Localio and Jessica Jones-Smith wrote this story for The Conversation. Dan Novak adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

obesity — n. fat in a way that is unhealthy

eligible — n. able to be chosen for something

stigma — n. a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something

strategy — n. a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time

elusive — adj. hard to find or capture

income — n. money that is earned from work, investments, business, etc.