Iowa State study finds health value to children of National School Lunch Program

November 10, 2011

The federally funded National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides free and reduced-price meals to more than 31 million children every school day, according to its website (http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch/). And a recent study by current and former Iowa State University researchers confirmed that school lunches improve the health outcomes of children who reside in low-income households.

The researchers analyzed data from nearly 2,700 NSLP children (ages 6-17) taken from the 2001-04 National and . Their study finds that the NSLP reduces the prevalence of food insecurity -- a situation in which an individual cannot access enough food to sustain active, healthy living -- by 3.8 percent, poor general health by 29 percent, and the rate of obesity by at least 17 percent in its participants.

"Our first objective was to try to provide policymakers with the best estimates of the effects of the NSLP on the well-being of children," said Brent Kreider, an Iowa State professor of economics who collaborated on the study. "We think our results provide good evidence that the program is having generally beneficial effects on children's health outcomes. Of course we can't say that all children benefit, but it appears from our results that the prevalence of , poor general health and obesity would be higher without the program."

Craig Gundersen, a former ISU professor of human development and family studies who now is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois; and John Pepper, an associate professor of economics at the University of Virginia, also collaborated on the research. The study was posted online by the Journal of Econometrics (www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304407611001205) and will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal.

To study the impact of school lunch on children's nutritional health, the researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted by the National Centers for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control -- a program of surveys designed to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States through interviews and direct physical examinations. Their sample included 2,693 children between the ages of 6 and 17 who were reported to be attending schools with the NSLP and residing in households with income less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

Kreider says it's been well documented that children who qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches tend to have worse health than their fellow students.

"What is more difficult to identify is the causal role of the program itself when children are not randomly assigned into the NSLP," Kreider said. "Parents and teachers who know that particular children are not getting adequate nutrition at home may be self-selecting such children into the program. This can make it appear that the program is ineffective when it is really just the composition of high-risk beneficiaries."

Kreider and his colleagues' analysis developed new statistical methods capable of estimating causal "treatment effects" for government assistance programs when participation and eligibility are imperfectly measured. While their data came from 2001-04, Kreider says the basic structure of the NSLP and its participation rate haven't changed much in recent years, so the researchers expect their conclusions to be stable across time.

Among their findings, Kreider found the rate of obesity reduction to be the most surprising.

"We didn't expect to find such a large effect of the NSLP on reducing the obesity rate," Kreider said. "Theoretically, the impact of reduced-price lunches on obesity is ambiguous. Because NSLP administrators must adhere to nutritional guidelines, one might expect the NSLP to reduce obesity. But school lunches might also lead to higher caloric intakes, and possibly more fat-related calories."

"The magnitude of this effect was surprising to us, though we are not estimating an amount of weight loss but rather changes in the fraction of children above a specific threshold. This large percentage change may also reflect the somewhat small base," he said.

The new study contradicts previous research suggesting that the NSLP actually increases the obesity rate. For that reason, Kreider says he's looking forward to future literature on the topic.

Still, the researchers conclude that their analysis shows that the NSLP program significantly improves the well-being of in several dimensions.

They plan to continue studying the of participants in government programs that target low-income households.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Big Data can save lives, says leading cancer expert

May 16, 2016

The sharing of genetic information from millions of cancer patients around the world could be key to revolutionising cancer prevention and care, according to a leading cancer expert from Queen's University Belfast.

New soap to ward off malaria carrying mosquitoes

May 13, 2016

(Medical Xpress)—Gérard Niyondiko along with colleagues Frank Langevin and Lisa Barutel has posted a project on the crowd source funding site ulule for a product called Faso Soap. They claim the soap can cut in half the ...

Smartphones uncover how the world sleeps

May 6, 2016

A pioneering study of worldwide sleep patterns combines math modeling, mobile apps and big data to parse the roles society and biology each play in setting sleep schedules.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.