The Effect of Free School Meals on Household Food Purchases: Evidence from the Community Eligibility Provision

Research Rundown Issue: November '21
Publisher: National Bureau of Economic Research
Date Published: October '21


This study explores how providing universal free school meals impacts family food expenditures, the quality of food purchased, and overall food insecurity—finding a positive impact on all three. The researchers look specifically at families eligible for meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students if at least 40% of their students are low-income. They use data from the Current Population Survey and the Nielsen Household Panel, which gathers detailed data on consumer purchases.

Overall, CEP program access reduces spending on food by $11 a month. While this is a modest drop, it may also reflect a greater ability to spend money on healthier foods. Examining the dietary quality of the household grocery purchases, the researchers found that, amongst low-income households with children, the composite health score—a continuous measure comparing the aggregate health of a bundle of household goods purchased each month—increased by 3%. Finally, they also found an increase in food security, with CEP access associated with an 11% decline in the percentage of households that ran short of food money and a nearly 5% decline in households classified as food insecure.

Why This Matters in Minnesota

This study builds on previous research showing the benefits of universal free school meals and the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Unfortunately, Minnesota ranks 47th out of the 50 states in CEP participation, with only half of the schools that are eligible participating in the CEP program. To address the issue, advocates have recommended several strategies to increase CEP participation, including technical assistance and policy changes to address funding concerns. This would mark an important first step toward Minnesota providing universal access to school meals, following in the footsteps of California and Maine, which became the first two states to establish permanent free meal programs for all students.

Read the full report