What’s for Lunch? The Relationship Between School Menus and Student Lunch Participation
*Names in bold indicate Presenter
Specifically, we use student fixed-effects models leveraging variation in the menus students are exposed to over time while attending the same school together with a range of control variables to estimate the impact of a new menu on lunch participation in schools with Point of Service (POS) systems tracking lunch transactions. Our results show that the introduction of a new menu increases the share of students participating and how often they participate. Examining differential responsiveness by student characteristics reveals that new menus can help to close racial, gender, and socioeconomic gaps in the utilization of school lunch. In a series of extensions, we find suggestive evidence that menus may have a greater impact on participation in schools offering all students free meals and that the type of menu (e.g., “grab and go” or “food court”) served also matters. We find no evidence that menus relate to attendance or adverse weight outcomes.
This study presents the first rigorous evidence on the effect of menus on participation in school meal programs. Additionally, by examining an important component of the implementation of school lunch, it informs the efforts that many school districts are taking to reformulate their menus.