The US Department of Agriculture conducted a large experiment with school breakfast programs in public schools from 1999 to 2003, alternately providing either universal breakfasts or breakfast-in-class programs aimed at both expanding access and eliminating the stigma associated with the school breakfast program. Policymakers have long been concerned with low participation rates in the breakfast program and these experiments were designed to combat that problem.
It worked: participation in the school breakfast programs rose. The problem, a new study finds, is that the expanded participation brought largely no benefit to those it was intended to help.
As authors Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Mary Zaki of Northwestern University write:
Despite the increase in breakfast consumption under BIC, we find no positive impact on most other outcomes. In contrast to the earlier, quasi-experimental literature, we find no positive impact on test scores and some evidence of negative impacts. Similarly, there appears to be no overall positive impact on attendance rates or child health. There is suggestive evidence that BIC may improve behavior and health in some highly disadvantaged subgroups, though.
The authors urge that their results don’t speak against the effectiveness of the school breakfast program as constituted, but merely against efforts to expand the program. They find that the increase in participation resulted largely from students who merely substituted school breakfasts for those they were already getting at home – and that a certain percentage of the increase in participation was from some children eating two breakfasts. The authors write that “the realtively modest measured benefits suggest that policymakers should carefully consider how to trade these off against the increased program costs.”