Working Papers

Universal Access to Free School Meals and Student Achievement

Evidence from the Community Eligibility Provision


Improving nutritional intake can improve children’s academic achievement and long-term health outcomes. This paper evaluates the extent to which, and for which groups of students, schoolwide meals affect reading and math performance. Leveraging cross-state variation in the timing of eligibility for schoolwide free meals under the Community Eligibility Provision, I find universal access to free meals substantially increases breakfast and lunch participation. Math performance increases approximately 0.02 standard deviations in districts with the largest shares of students becoming eligible for free meals. Scaling by the share of newly-eligible students, this effect implies gaining access to free meals increases math scores by 0.07 standard deviations. Test score improvements are concentrated among Hispanic and white students { groups with relatively low eligibility rates under the traditional school meals program.