Standardized Test Scores Increase Thanks to Healthy School Lunches, Study Says

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Students and healthy lunches
Source: USDA, “Students, School Staff and Teachers Celebrating National School Lunch Week,” flickr.com, Oct. 13, 2015

Standardized test score data from 9,700 K-12 schools revealed that scores increased by about 4 percentile points on average, when healthy lunches were provided to children. While those numbers may seem small, one of the study’s authors, Michael L. Anderson, PhD, Associate Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Southern California, noted that the increase is statistically significant for both economically disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students.

The Feb. 23, 2017 working paper found that the increase in test scores is also relatively inexpensive. The switch to healthier lunches costs about $222 per student per year and is compliant with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (Michelle Obama’s initiative signed into law in 2010 that increased nutrition standards for public schools in order to fight childhood obesity). In comparison, a study in Tennessee found that reducing class size to increase test scores cost $1,368 per student per year and increased scores slightly more than healthy lunches.

Kweko Power, a 15-year-old sophomore at Oakland High School, one of the schools studied by Anderson, et al., stated, “When students eat healthier and better food, they get more stamina… Without good food, students are just stressed at school, and then still stress about being expected to perform well.”

Evan Millerick, a high school junior in Texas at the time of his statement, said, “[T]he healthy food many schools are serving isn’t appetizing enough to sell us on the benefits of nutritious meals. No kid wants slimy, foul-smelling spinach! Until cafeterias start making their new offerings look and taste appealing enough for kids to choose them at will, students will resort to packing their own lunches, or the bland vegetables and mushy fruit will just end up in the trash.”

Whether the healthy lunch options are effective depends upon students actually eating the fruits and vegetables offered. Studies are conflicting as to whether students are eating the healthy options or throwing produce in the trash. A 2015 study found that students took fruits and vegetables 29% more of the time, but consumption of those fruits and vegetables decreased by 13% and students were throwing away 56% more. However, a 2014 study found that students’ vegetable consumption increased by 16.2% when healthy options were available.

The study did not find a correlation between healthier lunches and lower obesity rates.


Sources:

Melinda D. Anderson, “Do Healthy Lunches Improve Student Test Scores?,” theatlantic.com, Mar. 22, 2017

Michael L. Anderson, Justin Gallagher, and Elizabeth Ramirez Ritchie, “School Lunch Quality and Academic Performance,” berkeley.edu, Feb. 23, 2017

Ariana Eunjung Cha, “Why the Healthy School Lunch Program Is in Trouble. Before/After Photos of What Students Ate,” washingtonpost.com, Aug. 26, 2015

Sarah Harris, “Debate over School Lunch Nutrition Standards Continues,” North Country Public Radio website, Apr. 3, 2015

Brian A. Jacob and Jonah E. Rockoff, “Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement: Start Times, Grade Configurations, and Teacher Assignments,” brookings.edu, Sep. 27, 2011

Scholastic Choices, “Are Healthy School Lunches Working?,” scholastic.com, Mar. 2016