Panel Paper: A Free Lunch: School Meal Uptake and Student Achievement Under the Community Eligibility Provision

Saturday, November 10, 2018
8206 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sarah Crittenden Fuller and Aubrey Comperatore, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

This study examines the role that increased uptake of school meals plays in mediating the impact of the Community Eligibility Provision on student achievement and absenteeism in North Carolina. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows schools with large populations of low-income students to offer free meals to all students rather than providing subsidized meals only to a set of students who met income eligibility thresholds. Previous research by the authors of this study documents improvements in elementary school absences and test scores as well as reading and English scores in middle and high school. However, these effects are concentrated among certain subgroups, particularly students attending rural schools.

Existing research demonstrates that improvements in nutrition are linked to greater student learning for low-income students. Several studies show positive impacts on educational outcomes from improved nutrition and the NSLP and SBP specifically. However, researchers find that levels of participation in social benefits, like school nutrition programs, are influenced by barriers, including knowledge of the program, administrative barriers in applying for the program, and psychological factors such as stigma. In addition, stigma attached to program participation may directly affect the outcomes of students, and universal access may reduce stigma they associated with participation. Given this research, the CEP has promising potential to improve student outcomes. This study aims to explore the role of meal uptake in mediating the effect of the CEP on student outcomes as well as to understand why the impacts of the CEP vary across student subgroups and different types of schools.

This study uses secondary administrative data provided by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) on all public schools in North Carolina and all students enrolled in North Carolina public schools during the 2011-12 to 2016-17 school years. This data includes student demographics, school characteristics, achievement test scores, and student absences. This data is combined with data on CEP eligibility, CEP participation, and school meal uptake also provided by NCDPI. We will use a school level difference-in-differences model to examine the effect of CEP participation on school meal uptake for both economically disadvantaged and non-economically disadvantaged students. This model will include interactions for schools with different characteristics to determine if CEP participation influences school meal uptake more in some types of schools. We will also perform a student level mediation analysis to determine the role that meal uptake plays in mediating the impact of CEP participation on student outcomes. The findings from this analysis will help to disentangle potential mechanisms by which the CEP could impact outcomes. Mediation by an increase in school meals for economically disadvantaged students may signal a nutrition mechanism linking CEP participation and improved outcomes, while mediation by an increase in school meals for non-economically disadvantaged students may be more indicative of a stigma related mechanism.