My younger daughter frequently ate breakfast in the cafeteria during elementary school. We’d fed her at home–honest, we did–but she could sometimes get pancakes at school and, more importantly, hang out with her friends. We paid for the breakfasts; other kids got theirs for free. It wasn’t particularly anyone’s business who ate for free. No one knew and no one cared either. That’s a little bit of what made my daughter’s elementary so great. The idea that public schools bring kids together of different income levels is an important goal of the American education system, even if the goal isn’t achieved all that often.
Turns out there’s some neat evidence by Leos-Urbel, Schwartz, Weinstein, and Corcoran on what happens when you make breakfast free for all kids. New York City decided to make school breakfast free to everyone in 2003. (The city raised lunch prices to make up the difference.) Interestingly the changes were mostly symbolic, as school breakfast had only cost a quarter before it became free.
The authors compare what happened in schools where the policy change affected who got free breakfast to schools where nothing much changed. (In some schools, everyone was fed for free before the city-wide change. ) The results are interesting.
Unsurprisingly, there was an increase in the number of breakfasts bought by kids who previously had had to pay. Breakfasts went up from about 10 a year to about 37, as you can see in the picture. Much more interestingly, kids who would have gotten breakfast for free anyhow also ate more school breakfasts, the numbers rising roughly from 38 to 50 times a year. Presumably, some part of the change for these kids was removal of stigma or positive social effects.
To some extent, NYC kids from all sorts of backgrounds became more likely to eat breakfast in school over this period. The authors do a careful check by looking at schools where all kids had been fed for free anyhow. With this control, the changes are smaller than suggested by the simple picture, but the changes are there.
The evidence from the NYC experiment suggests a modest increase in kids from different backgrounds sitting down for breakfast together. Seems a good thing to me. At home, don’t most of us grownups feed whatever kids are around without inquiring how much money their parents make?