Changes in school meal programs can affect well-being of millions of American children. Since 2014, high-poverty schools and districts nationwide had an option to provide universal free meals (UFM) through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). The COVID-19 pandemic expanded UFM to all schools in 2020–2022. Using nationally representative data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study: Kindergarten Class of 2010–2011, we measured CEP effects on school meal participation, attendance, academic achievement, children’s body weight, and household food security. To provide plausibly causal estimates, we leveraged the exogenous variation in the timing of CEP implementation across states and estimated a difference-in-difference model with child random effects, school and year fixed effects. On average, CEP participation increased the probability of children’s eating free school lunch by 9.3% and daily school attendance by 0.24 percentage points (p
< 0.01). We find no evidence that, overall, CEP affected body weight, test scores and household food security among elementary schoolchildren. However, CEP benefited children in low-income families by decreasing the probability of being overweight by 3.1% (p
< 0.05) and improving reading scores of Hispanic children by 0.055 standard deviations. UFM expansion can particularly benefit at-risk children and help improve equity in educational and health outcomes.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.