The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 allows the provision of universal free meals (UFMs) in high-poverty school areas. Participation in UFM programs, including through CEP, could reduce meal costs due to economies of scale and a lower administrative burden. We analyzed the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study (SNMCS) data from 508 UFM-eligible schools (103 UFMs) to evaluate whether meal costs varied by UFM status. We used school-level data to address the non-random selection to UFMs with inverse probability of treatment weighting (IPTW). We estimated a generalized linear model with a log link and gamma distribution to predict meal costs by UFM status and school size. Full costs among medium and large schools were marginally lower in UFM schools for lunch (−$0.673; 95% CI: −1.395, 0.0499; p
= 0.068) and significantly lower for breakfast (−$0.575; 95% CI: −1.077, −0.074; p
= 0.025). UFM was not associated with meal costs among smaller schools. Healthy Eating Index scores did not vary significantly by UFMs, suggesting that lower costs could be achieved without an adverse effect on nutritional quality. This analysis is limited by the lack of identified student percentage (ISP) data needed to definitively identify CEP eligibility, although results were robust to sensitivity analyses addressing the lack of ISP data. The potential policy impact of these findings emphasizes the need for future studies that assess ISP and cost with more recent data and longitudinal designs.
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