Universal access to free meals at schools can lead to lower grocery bills and healthier food purchases

<span class="caption">When schools make free meals more accessible, families can save money on groceries.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link " href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/as-part-of-boston-public-schools-free-offerings-of-news-photo/154676593?adppopup=true" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images">Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images</a></span>
When schools make free meals more accessible, families can save money on groceries. Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

Families with children can save US$11 to $39 per month, or $132 to $468 per year, on groceries through the Community Eligibility Provision – a federal program through which high-poverty schools or districts provide free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of family income. This is according to a new study that uses data on purchases made by 40,000 to 60,000 U.S. households annually to examine how the program benefits families.

Research has estimated that eating a healthy diet costs about $1.50 more per day than eating a less healthy diet. For that reason, when families save money by spending less on groceries, the savings may result in changes to the quality of their households’ diet. In fact, when households save money from this program, they are able to reallocate their spending toward purchasing healthier food.

We find that low-income households purchase groceries that are 3% healthier after the program becomes available. This is based on changes in their diet score, a scale we constructed with values that range from negative one to positive one, with higher values indicating healthier food purchases according to doctor recommendations.

Finally, we show that overall household food insecurity – where households have limited or uncertain access to adequate food – declines by almost 5% after the program becomes available. This is despite the fact that students from low-income families already qualified for free school meals before the program.

Our findings suggest that expanding safety net programs and reducing barriers to access can help families, including families that were not participating in the program even though they were eligible.

Why it matters

Historically, many students from low-income households have not participated in free school meals despite being eligible. This may be due to stigma and discrimination or due to the difficulty of applying for the program.

Schools or districts with at least 40% low-income students can participate in the Community Eligibility Provision, which makes free meals accessible to everyone. In participating schools, students from low-income households no longer need to apply for the program and are less likely to feel singled out. This increases the number of students who eat free school meals, and schools that participate serve more meals than before the universal free school meal program.

Universal meals can also help improve students’ health, reduce absenteeism and increase earnings later in life.

What still isn’t known

Our results provide evidence on just one aspect of overall dietary quality, which is food purchased at grocery stores. We lack information on the nutritional quality of school meals, which can vary by school and over time as schools meet new standards from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

We also do not know how much each household spends on eating food outside the home at sit-down or fast-food restaurants or the dietary quality of these meals. We are also unable to say which family members consume specific grocery purchases, so each family member’s diet may be different.

Finally, we are not able to say for certain that the food purchased is actually consumed by household members instead of going to waste.

What’s next

Our study reveals that access to universal free school meals can significantly improve household budgets and food security, which may reduce stress, depression and other related adverse outcomes that disproportionately affect low-income households.

Ongoing work suggests teenagers with access to the universal free school meal program may experience improvements in overall health, sleep and mental health. Future research could explore additional benefits of these improved outcomes in more depth.

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