Georgia State University researchers Will Davis and Tareena Musaddiq conducted a study that found a positive relationship between free school lunches and student health.

The study looked at the impact of the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which is a policy initiative introduced in 2015 that took a new approach to free school lunches. There are current programs in place that allow families to apply for free lunches but this policy introduced the idea of simply giving free lunches to every student.

Looking at this policy, the researchers found that implementing district-wide free school lunches corresponded with lower body mass indexes (MI) in students and overall increased the number of students with healthy weights by 1%.

According to the study, “CEP participation and subsequent increases in free school meal enrollment increase the percentage of a school’s students who fall within the healthy weight range and reduce school-level average BMI scores for elementary and middle schools as well as schools in urban areas, suburbs, and towns.”

While other studies in the past suggested that school meals impact student health negatively, this study is the first to suggest that free school lunches could actually improve student health. Additionally, this study supports other research that shows free school lunches may also help improve academic performance. Without feelings of hunger, students can better pay attention in class.

North Carolina has food stamps, called SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), that are distributed to families throughout the month. Research has shown that students who receive their SNAP benefits around the same time students take their standardized tests often perform better. So while teachers make up half of the school workforce and play a vital role in the success of their students, there may be other factors at play.

Free school lunch programs, like the CEP, not only provide free school lunches to students, but also try to get rid of the stigma that is associated with receiving a free lunch. Students around the country often face harassment if they can’t afford their lunches. In districts across the country, students are denied food or aren’t given proper meals if they owe lunch money.

However, the researchers suggest administrators may be concerned with “school shaming” rather than “student shaming”.

“If schools choose not to adopt the CEP because they feel that it will negatively affect their public perception, our results indicate that the choice may come at the expense of foregone improvements to the health of their students,” the study notes.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that proper nutrition is important for every child, no matter their home income. Just like how regular play is crucial for the development of at least 400 genes in the cerebral cortex, proper meals play a vital role in physical and mental development too.

While there are barriers to adopting these programs, like cost and legislation, more and more school districts are beginning to see the importance of providing healthy meals to each and every one of their students.