NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
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School Lunch Quality and Academic Performance

Michael L. Anderson, Justin Gallagher, Elizabeth Ramirez Ritchie

NBER Working Paper No. 23218
Issued in March 2017
NBER Program(s):Children, Economics of Education, Health Economics, Labor Studies, Public Economics

Improving the nutritional content of public school meals is a topic of intense policy interest. A main motivation is the health of school children, and, in particular, the rising childhood obesity rate. Medical and nutrition literature has long argued that a healthy diet can have a second important impact: improved cognitive function. In this paper, we test whether offering healthier lunches affects student achievement as measured by test scores. Our sample includes all California (CA) public schools over a five-year period. We estimate difference-in-difference style regressions using variation that takes advantage of frequent lunch vendor contract turnover. Students at schools that contract with a healthy school lunch vendor score higher on CA state achievement tests, with larger test score increases for students who are eligible for reduced price or free school lunches. We do not find any evidence that healthier school lunches lead to a decrease in obesity rates.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w23218

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