SYRACUSE — A study by researchers at Syracuse University has found that providing a universal free school meals program benefits student attendance and has no impact on weight outcomes in the early education years.
As New York state lawmakers navigate the budget approval process, many continue to push for universal free school meals. Samantha Trajkovski, Amy Ellen Schwartz, and Michah W. Rothbart, researchers with Syracuse University’s Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion and Population Health, looked at the relationship between universal free meal programs and attendance and weight outcomes for young students.
The researchers studied data on a sample of 132,353 kindergarten students in New York City from 2009 to 2014 to explore the relationship between early exposure to universal free meals and attendance and weight outcomes in grades kindergarten through three.
“While the short-term benefits of UFM (universal free meals) on academic and health outcomes is well documented, less is known about whether UFM’s positive effects on school attendance and weight persist over the longer term,” they said in their report.
The researchers said kindergarten was an important time to establish habits and behaviors.
“Kindergarten is the foundational year of elementary school in which students are thought to learn key habits and behaviors that shape success in the longer term, but also the years with the highest chronic absenteeism rates among elementary school students,” they said. “Using longitudinal administrative data on NYC public school students, we describe the relationship between exposure to UFM in kindergarten and attendance and weight outcomes in grades K-3.”
The researchers said kindergarten students who receive universal free meals had attendance 1% higher than their peers who do not, and chronic absenteeism was 5.4% lower.
They said, although the higher attendance and lower chronic absenteeism disparity persists into the later grades, it shrinks over time. They also noted that universal free meal programs do not appear to lead to adverse weight outcomes.
They said “the promise of a free school meal” leads students to attend school more frequently.
“Such increases in school meal participation (or attendance) in kindergarten may lead to habit formation, which is consistent with our finding of a persistent, positive relationship of kindergarten UFM receipt on attendance in later grades,” according to the researchers. “Further, UFM may increase participation in school meals.”
That, in turn, leads to better attendance, they said.
“Kindergarten attendance is 1 percentage point higher (or an additional 1.8 days in school per year), and chronic absenteeism is 5.4 percentage points lower among kindergartners with UFM than among kindergartners without UFM,” they said. “Higher attendance and lower chronic absenteeism persist into later grades for students who received UFM in kindergarten, although the disparity between these children and those who did not receive UFM shrinks over time.”
For example, the 5.4 percentage point decrease in chronic absenteeism in kindergarten shrinks to 3.3 percentage points in first grade and 2.2 percentage points in second grade.
“We see a similar pattern for attendance,” they said.
In addition, they said, “We find no meaningful or statistically significant relationship between UFM receipt and student weight outcomes, suggesting free school meals in early elementary grades does not increase (nor decrease) obesity, underweight, or body mass index (BMI). While we find students who receive UFM in kindergarten have worse weight outcomes (greater BMI, overweight, and obesity) in kindergarten, we find no evidence that this is due to the program itself.”
The researchers said, given their findings, “We believe district and school leaders nationwide should consider adopting UFM. As more schools and districts adopt UFM, kindergarten students will begin their academic careers with access to free school meals, which can change their perceptions of school food and school more generally, and potentially improve academic outcomes in both the short and long run.”
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