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Institutional Rep Update - December 2018

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Exploring the Impact of School Breakfast Policy

November 9, 2013 12:58 PM

By Orelaru Yetunde Mary, University of Bradford

Mary Zaki and Diane Whitemore Schanzenbach, from University of Northwestern, presented a study on Expanding the School Breakfast Program: Impacts on Children’s Consumption, Nutrition, and Health. Specifically, they re-evaluated a randomized experiment conducted by USDA (1999-2003). They did so based on the argument that the original evaluation did not separate control groups and that pool outcome data improved precision. The study grouped schools into treated groups (school decided between breakfast in class and cafeteria-based) and control (had normal meal tested before school breakfast). The study showed that breakfast in the classroom substantially increased participation in the school breakfast program and the likelihood a child eats a high-quality breakfast. However, there was no evidence for positive impacts on other outcomes, including: overall dietary quality, health, attendance rates, and test scores.

Dallas Dotter, Mathematica Policy Research, presented Breakfast at the Desk: The Impact of Universal Breakfast Programs on Academic Performance. According to Dotter, 20 percent of students skip breakfast. The paper addressed the two fundamental questions:

  • How does universal-free school breakfast affect student achievement, attendance, and classroom behavior?
  • Do impacts from these programs persist or fade over time?

The results show that introducing universal-free breakfast through breakfast in class (BIC) will increase school breakfast participation by 183%, increase mathematics and ELA gains by 15% and 10% respectively, and has no effects on attendance rates. The results also show no significant effect on performance with prior universal-free breakfast. Schools with fewer initial participants largely gain from it, which suggests continued benefits to learning—but not solely from caloric boost at time of testing. Few of Dotter’a study implications are that school breakfasts are underutilized when associated with income levels and have a non-trivial role of health and nutritional factors in improving academic performance. Dotter stated that further research should focus on how impacts differ by grade, and the timing of subject instruction relative to the meal. Is there reversion of achievement levels after leaving a school with universal free breakfast?

Sean Corcoran presented on The Effect of Breakfast in the Classroom on Obesity and Academic Performance: Evidence from New York City, which looked at the introduction of BIC in NYC to estimate its impact on meals program participation, body mass index, achievement in ELA and mathematics, attendance rates, and student experience of school climate. Corcoran asserted that:

  • Large effects of BIC on participation suggests the program works.
  • There is little evidence of an adverse impact on obesity.
  • There is small but insignificant effects on achievement, attendance, and student experience of school.

In conclusion, Corcoran suggested steps should be taken in addressing measurement error in height, weight, tardies, and fitness; refine breakfast in classroom coding with supplemental data; and school mechanisms such as time and stigma.


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