The Surprising Connection Between Universal School Meals and Student Discipline

Free meals also appear to reduce bullying and end stigma among low-income students
By Arianna Prothero — April 12, 2024


For Raniya Fisher, a senior at Ridgeland High School in Mississippi, lunchtime is about more than eating, it’s a time to recharge and build relationships.

Raniya, who plays basketball, eats in the gym with her teammates as way to build team cohesion. But she still goes to the cafeteria for a free meal, where she looks forward to her daily chats with the lunch ladies.

Raniya qualifies for free- and reduced-priced lunch, but she knows people at her school who don’t and struggle to afford lunch. She thinks school meals should be free for everyone.

“If you don’t eat at lunch you are just starving, and little things like that are a distraction,” she said. “The teacher could ask you one simple question, and you get mad, and you could get in it with the teacher because you didn’t eat lunch! You might be a little sleepy, but [when] you’re full, you’re in a positive attitude and ready to do your work.”

Now, a body of research supports the idea that giving free school meals to all students can be an important ingredient to nurturing a healthy school climate. Among new significant findings: The policy is linked to lower discipline rates among students because it reduces the stigma around receiving subsidized meals.

Whether it’s from the sustenance or the sense of community they provide, universal lunch appears to support many of the factors that make for a positive school climate, such as reducing discipline rates, tamping down on bullying, improving attendance, and alleviating the stigma for students from low-income families.

“There is a very important social dimension, which is when you are in the lunchroom, [universal meals] take away this mechanism of pointing out who is poor,” said Amy Schwartz, a professor in Joseph R. Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware. “Instead, you say, ‘we’re at school, we eat together, and this is what we eat.”

Students who are hungry have a harder time paying attention, and are more likely to act up in class, which affects both their ability to learn and behave, said Schwartz, who has studied the effects of universal free school meal programs in New York City. And there are a lot of students whose families make too much money to qualify for free- and reduced-priced meals but still struggle to afford food.

Taking away that stigma of qualifying for free and reduced priced meals may also drive down discipline rates.

Students—and teachers—can usually figure out who is getting subsidized meals from school, said Thurston Domina, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s school of education.

“We’ve got good research to suggest that students see that and that they associate school meals with poverty,” Domina said. “And we’ve got good research to suggest that stigma associated with poverty carries with students throughout the school day.”

Changing behavior—and perceptions

To isolate whether the stigma of receiving free and reduced priced meals played a role in discipline rates, Domina and researchers from the U.S. Census Bureau examined schools in Oregon, comparing those that started offering universal free school meals through the federal school meals program’s community eligibility provision to those that did not. By linking school data on free and reduced-price lunch enrollment and discipline referrals to data from the census and tax records, they were able to get a granular look at how the policy affected different students.

Complicating matters, students who do qualify for free or subsidized meals may not be receiving them, and, conversely, sometimes students whose families are too wealthy to qualify still end up enrolled in the federal meal program.

Removing that label may affect students’ behavior, he said, but it can also change teachers’ perceptions of their students leading to fewer suspensions.

In Domina’s view, “I think our findings are really encouraging for efforts to get free meals to more students,” he said. “I think getting nutrition into kids’ bodies is just a good thing for a society to do. And I think that our research suggests that doing so can help create happier and healthier and more egalitarian social environments in schools.”

Universal free school meals can also help improve attendance rates, said Schwartz, for a couple of different reasons: Attending and eating at school means families spend less money on groceries at home. A positive lunchroom experience free of stigma contributes to a better social experience overall, which means they might be more likely to be engaged in school and show up, Schwartz said.

“This isn’t the solution to our attendance problem, this isn’t the silver bullet, but you expect that it would help. Free school meals are the gift that keeps on giving in a bunch of different dimensions,” she said.

Additional research has found that universal free lunches may reduce bullying. And all of that contributes to a positive school climate, Schwartz said.

“It would be hard to connect what a student is feeling to any behaviors—it could go either way,” he said. “They might act out, but they might be much more likely to be withdrawn and go into their shell.”

Kids who don’t qualify for free school meals often brought leftovers from home or go out for fast food, while students from low-income families sat in the lunchroom with cafeteria trays, Young said.

But now his school provides free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of income. Vermont is among a small number of states, including California, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, that adopted universal free school meals following the pandemic.

Now that meals are free for all students, even those kids who can afford to eat out usually opt for the free meal, Young said.

“Kids are like, oh, well, if the meal is free, I’m just doing [that],” he said, and it’s improving the school’s culture. “It’s much more of a community when more kids are taking advantage of the school lunch program.”

Using the lunchroom to improve school climate

Young has leveraged the lunchroom in other ways to bolster his schools’ climate. When students returned to full-time in-person learning following the pandemic, Young replaced the long lunch tables with circular ones to encourage more conversation and connection among students as they made the transition from remote and hybrid learning.

Finally, the universal policies can catch students who fall through the cracks of the current system, said Schwartz. That’s the case for Kearston May, another high school student at Ridgeland High School in Mississippi, who said she skips lunch when the balance on her school meal account is getting too high.

“Sometimes I have to pick and choose my battles based on what I have in my lunch account and what I have to do that day,” said Kearston, who is in 11th grade and plays on the school’s volleyball team.

“On my athletic days, I try my best to eat. We are doing running and weightlifting, and knowing from past experiences not having something in your stomach can be very challenging,” she said.

On the days she doesn’t eat lunch, Kearston said she is drained by the end of the school day. She is thankful that the lunch ladies give her food even when she is in debt and give her a heads-up when the balance is getting so high it might be a problem. Students in her situation, Kearston said, are going to struggle in school.

“They are not thinking about school, they are not willing to learn,” Kearston said. “I think a free meal is one less thing to worry about.”