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Free school lunch, a conservative punching bag, actually means healthier students

A new study shows free lunch programs in schools does more than help reduce stigmas.

Sarah Carrasco, 7, takes her tray back to her seat during lunch at North Star Elementary School on June 5, 2017, in Thornton, Colorado. Adams 12 Five Star Schools offers free breakfast and/or lunch this summer at six schools to children ages one to 18 years old along with a day program at select sites. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Sarah Carrasco, 7, takes her tray back to her seat during lunch at North Star Elementary School on June 5, 2017, in Thornton, Colorado. Adams 12 Five Star Schools offers free breakfast and/or lunch this summer at six schools to children ages one to 18 years old along with a day program at select sites. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

A recent study out of Georgia State University provides insight into the health effects of free lunch programs. Researchers Will Davis and Tareena Musaddiq found that when every child has access to free school lunch, they are likely to be healthier too.

The Georgia study examines the impact of the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a policy initiative first promoted by two Obama-era cabinet secretaries in 2015 that had a new approach to free lunch in schools: just give it to every child for free, no family paperwork required.

The fate of free and reduced lunch programs has been in jeopardy ever since President Donald Trump was inaugurated. Trump’s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has hinted in the past that he may roll back some of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s healthy lunch initiatives. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also reiterated the popular Republican joke at CPAC 2017 that there is “no such thing as a free lunch.”

In Georgia, the state researchers primarily focused on, research showed that the implementation of district-wide free school lunch correlated with lower body mass indexes (BMI) in children and increased the share of students in a healthy weight range by 1 percentage point.

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“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,” according to the study.

The study also found no evidence to support claims that school meals negatively impact the health of a child, as other studies have previous suggested.

This research is likely the first to suggest that free school lunch programs actually make students healthier. Other studies have shown free school lunch can result in higher academic performance. When fewer students go hungry, fewer students have difficulty paying attention in class, resulting in higher test scores.

These studies square with what other researchers have found while studying access to affordable meals in general.

In North Carolina, where food stamps, called SNAP (for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), are distributed on different weeks of the month based on the recipient’s social security number, the students whose families receive their SNAP benefits closer to when kids take the state’s standardize test actually tend to perform better.

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In another study, a SNAP recipient helps explain the phenomenon, saying, “At the [beginning of the month] you have all the fun food, you got the meat and the fresh vegetables and stuff and by the [end], you’re eating the breads and the pastas and the canned stuff.”

According to research, students who received SNAP benefits around two weeks prior to their test date perform best. This is likely the result of access to sufficient food resources and lowered household stress not only on the day of the test but for the previous two weeks.

Programs like the CEP that mandate every child have access to a free school meal were also created with the intention of getting rid of the stigma that comes with taking free or reduced lunch.

Aside cross the country, children face harassment from their schools if they have “lunch debt.”

In a Pennsylvania school district, cafeteria workers are barred from serving students a hot meal if their families owe the school more than $25. When a young boy in one of the district’s elementary schools went over the $25 dollar credit limit, a lunchroom staffer was forced to toss his meal in the trash.

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Students who fail to have enough money for lunch in Salt Lake City, Utah’s school district are fed fruit and milk instead of a full meal.

In some cases, students go through the public spectacle of having their hands stamped if they can’t pay for their lunch.

In addition to the current administration’s skepticism about school lunch programs, other Republicans also have a history of attacking free lunch policies.

South Carolina’s Republican Lt. Governor Andre Bauer compared feeding the poor to feeding stray animals. Meanwhile, half of South Carolina students receive free or reduced lunch.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), who opposes a federal free lunch program and has argued poor students should sweep floors in exchange for lunch, has expensed thousands of dollars for meals.

And just last year, Republicans in Congress pushed a bill that would have stopped public schools from offering free lunch to all students.