Thanks to the federal School Breakfast Program, millions of low-income children have the opportunity to start the school day with a healthy meal. But does the program impact the brain as well as the belly? A new study finds that it does, with students at participating schools scoring higher in math, reading and science.
A striking illustration of the connections between nutrition and education, the study not only found higher academic scores within schools that participate in the School Breakfast Program, it also found that the effect was cumulative. In other words, the longer the school offered breakfast, the higher the academic achievement scores.
“There’s been a lot of research on the value of breakfast in general, but I wanted to specifically see whether or not the (School Breakfast Program) as it exists today is effective in improving educational performance,” said study author David Frisvold, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Iowa.
To conduct the study, which was published online in the Journal of Public Economics, Frisvold compared publicly available educational assessment scores among thousands of fifth-graders. Those students were grouped into two categories: Those at schools just below the threshold of being required to offer free breakfast and those at schools just above the threshold. (Many states require that schools begin offering free breakfast once a certain percentage of their student population is eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch.)
Overall, the study found that math scores were about 5 percent higher at schools taking part in the School Breakfast Program when compared to schools that didn’t take part in the program. In particular, kids at participating schools learned 25 percent more than they would have otherwise based on general averages of what a student is expected to learn over the course of a school year, Frisvold told me. He found similar gains in reading and science scores. Frisvold wrote in the study:
These results suggest that the persistent exposure to the relatively more nutritious breakfast offered through the (School Breakfast Program) throughout elementary school can yield important gains in achievement. In addition to providing evidence on the impact of state mandates and the availability of the (School Breakfast Program), this paper contributes to the understanding of the influence of childhood health and nutrition on cognitive achievement, which is an important determinant of human capital. Further, these results suggest that food assistance programs and nutrition interventions can influence cognitive achievement, not just in developing countries, but also in higher income countries, such as the U.S.
Frisvold also found a cumulative effect to the School Breakfast Program. In researching how long the fifth-graders had been exposed to the breakfast program, he found that the longer the school had been participating in the program, the greater the academic gains. He told me: “Consistent exposure to a more nutritious breakfast made a difference.”
So, what exactly makes the School Breakfast Program such an academic booster? Based on the scientific literature, Frisvold said better nutrition is the likely mechanism. Though he noted that other factors associated with the School Breakfast Program, such as reducing tardiness and school absenteeism as well as preserving family income for other needs, could also contribute to better academic scores.
From a policy perspective, Frisvold said his study findings do strengthen the argument that the School Breakfast Program is an effective intervention and one that improves educational outcomes. Though he noted that it’s only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to closing the academic achievement gap.
“I’d say that this program certainly contributes to reducing the gap between high-income and low-income students, but there’s such a large gap that this isn’t enough to level the playing field,” he said.
Originally established in 1966 as a federal pilot program, the School Breakfast Program served more than 12 million children every day in fiscal year 2011. Of those millions of children, more than 10 million qualified for free or reduce-priced breakfast. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, good health and academic achievement are closely linked, with high levels of education associated with longer life expectancies and lower rates of chronic disease.
To read more about the School Breakfast Program study, click here.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.