The Effect of Universal Free Meals on Student Perceptions of School Climate: Evidence from New York City

Research Rundown Issue: July '21
Publisher: Annenberg Institute at Brown University
Date Published: June '21


Universal Free Meals (UFM) is a program that provides school meals to all students, regardless of household income. Over the last decade, more schools have adopted it. To gauge whether UFM changes student participation in school lunch and student perceptions of their school climate, researchers used student survey and school meal participation data from the New York City Department of Education. A key finding was that participation increased for students who were already eligible for free meals. This change in student behavior supports the theory that UFM may alleviate stigma concerns for students.

The researchers also found that UFM positively affected student perceptions of school climate, regardless of socioeconomic status or prior participation. Students reported lower rates of bullying and fighting. Of note, students who had a history of participating in the school meals program reported that they felt safer in school.

Why This Matters in Minnesota

All students deserve to have a school meal without punishment or shame, and recently Minnesota has taken several steps to ensure this is a reality. During the 2021 legislative session, after years of advocacy through the Healthy Hunger-Free Schools campaign, a bipartisan lunch shaming ban was passed. Schools are now prohibited from denying school meals to students that have an outstanding balance. Schools are also banned from engaging in other types of lunch shaming like barring students from graduation ceremonies, extracurricular activities, and field trips.

While this is an important first step, the research findings indicate that increasing access could also play a role in reducing stigma. Advocates are also calling on policymakers to expand access to the federal Community Eligibility Provision program as a first step toward Minnesota providing universal access to school meals. At the same time, other states are going even further: This summer, California and Maine became the first two states in the country to establish permanent free meal programs for all students, serving as a model for the rest of the country.

Read the full study