KIDS
April 1, 2015

One Way to Help Failing Schools

Simply feeding low-income kids a decent breakfast raised test scores 25%. It's one of the easiest reforms around.

Education departments around the country hoping to improve student performance might want to consider a new take on No Child Left Behind — No Child Left Without Breakfast.

Most people know how important a good breakfast is. But a new study from the University of Iowa suggests that its benefits extend beyond health and growth. Researchers found that the School Breakfast Program (SBP) run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture can help kids do better in school.

Schools that offered free breakfast showed significantly better academic performance compared to those that did not; and the longer schools participated in the SBP, the higher their achievement.

Students at schools participating in the SBP had higher achievement scores in math, science, and reading than those in schools that did not participate.

David Frisvold, author of the study, told TheDoctor their findings suggest another possible approach to helping at-risk students, “The results show the value of nutrition, in particular they show the value of nutrition programs that are targeting disadvantaged students.”

When the SBP was launched in 1966 as part of the Child Nutrition Act, President Lyndon Johnson said he hoped it would improve student achievement. “It was not clear whether the program was actually successful, so that was what I was trying to understand with this study,” Frisvold added.

The SBP is administered by both the federal and state governments. Many state governments require local school districts to participate in the SBP if a certain percentage of their students come from families that meet eligibility criteria.

Frisvold compared the academic performance of students in schools that were just below the eligibility threshold, and were not required to offer breakfast, to that of students whose schools were required to offer breakfast.

The schools with free breakfast showed significantly better academic performance compared to those without the program; and the longer schools participated in the SBP, the higher their achievement. Math scores were approximately 25 percent higher at participating elementary schools than would be expected otherwise. Scores in science showed similar improvement.

Frisvold, an assistant professor of economics at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa, said it's possible the improvements seen resulted from better nutrition. A simpler explanation could be that because breakfast is offered prior to the start of the school day students came to school on time. But in this study, the improvements really did seem to be based on better nutrition.

The study was published online recently in the Journal of Public Economics.

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