Imagine a randomized controlled trial in which you give one group of low income kids breakfast and the kids in the other group not. This would be quite unethical. David Frisvold, assistant professor of economics in the Tippie College of Business, found a smart way to work around this ethical challenge.
In the US the federal government started the SBP for children from low-income families in 1966. The program is administered in coordination with state governments, many of which require local school districts to offer subsidized breakfasts if a certain percentage of their overall enrollment comes from families that meet income eligibility guidelines.
David Frisvold – in his study – examined the academic performance from students in schools that are just below the threshold–and thus not required to offer free breakfasts–and those that are just over it–and thus do offer them, hence the solution for the problem I mentioned in the intro.
He found the schools that offered free breakfasts showed significantly better academic performance than schools that did not, and that the impact was cumulative so that the longer the school participated in the SBP, the higher their achievement. Math scores were about 25 percent higher at participating schools during a students’ elementary school tenure than would be expected otherwise. Reading and science scores showed similar gains.
It’s clear that Frisvold – based on these results – describes breakfast programs as an effective tool to help elementary school students from low income families achieve more in school and be better prepared for later life:
“Overall, these results suggest that the persistent exposure to the relatively more nutritious breakfast offered through the SBP throughout elementary school can yield important gains in achievement. In addition to providing evidence on the impact of state mandates and the availability of the SBP, this paper contributes to the understanding of the influence of childhood health and nutrition on cognitive achievement, which is an important determinant of human capital. Further, these results suggest that food assistance programs and nutrition interventions can influence cognitive achievement, not just in developing countries, but also in higher income countries, such as the U.S.”
Abstract from the study (free download):
This paper investigates the impact of the School Breakfast Program (SBP) on cognitive achievement. The SBP is a federal entitlement program that offers breakfast to any student, including free breakfast for any low-income student, who attends a school that participates in the program. To increase the availability of the SBP, many states mandate that schools participate in the program if the percent of free or reduced-price eligible students in a school exceeds a specific threshold. Using the details of these mandates as a source of identifying variation, I find that the availability of the program increases student achievement.