Test Scores Go Up With Healthy School Lunches

CC BY 2.0. Alberto G

Economists have found a relatively cheap and easy way to make a significant improvement on standardized test scores.

When students eat healthy food, they perform better on standardized tests. It may sound like common sense, but many American school boards have not caught on to this basic concept. Ever since the ‘No Child Left Behind’ education law was enacted in 2002, U.S. schools have been trying frantically to improve student performance on standardized tests, in order to meet targets and avoid sanctions. Pressure is tremendous, which has led to school boards to implement very expensive programs in hopes of upping test scores. They’ve tried everything from yoga classes and extended school days, to smaller class sizes and increased teacher pay.

School lunches are a hot topic of debate, particularly as the White House administration considers slashing funding for such programs; but the problem is that most of the discussion revolves around improving student health and fighting the obesity epidemic and does not extend into the realm of food’s influence on academic performance. Clearly this is something that school boards should be discussing, based on new research from economists at the University of California at Berkeley.

A study published in February 2017, titled "School Lunch Quality and Academic Performance," has found that the quality of lunch food matters a lot. Many schools provide lunches made by in-house kitchen staff (a.k.a. reheating prepared frozen foods), but an increasing number are outsourcing production to external healthy food vendors. Students who eat those healthy meals perform better overall on state tests. From The Atlantic:

“Test score data from some 9,700 elementary, middle, and high schools found that contracting with a healthy meal vendor correlated with increased student performance by between .03 and .04 standard deviations—a statistically significant improvement for economically disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students, [study co-author Michael L.] Anderson said, adding that the size of the effect ‘is not huge ... but it is notable.’”

It would only cost schools approximately $222 per student per year to implement a healthy meal program and raise student test scores by 0.1 standard deviations (about 4 percentile points on average). By contrast, a study in Tennessee found that it costs $1,368 per student per year to raise test scores by the same amount through decreasing class sizes. So, schools could have a very good return on investment simply by improving the food served to students.

From the study’s conclusion:

“There is also no evidence that the introduction of healthier school lunches led to a change in the number of school lunches consumed. This supports our view that the observed correlation between healthier school lunches and test scores is due to the nutritional quality of the meals rather than the quantity of calories consumed.”

It makes sense. High-quality calories help one to feel more awake, alert, and energized. It’s easier to retain and process information. When one’s stomach is comfortably full, it reduces anxiety and improves one’s mood.

Interestingly, the researchers did not find a connection between healthy school meals and the percentage of obese students, but they suggest that those effects might appear over a longer period of time.