Universal-free school breakfast eliminates stigma for poor students
A study by two UNCG professors has found evidence that giving all kids access to free breakfast at school, rather than qualifying kids based on income, decreases the stigma for kids from low-income families and increases participation among all children.
Professors David Ribar and Lauren Haldeman studied the Guilford County Schools’ universal-free breakfast program, which offers free breakfast to all students, regardless of household income.
Haldeman, a nutrition professor, says qualifying kids for free or reduced breakfast based on household income may lead to fewer needy kids taking advantage of those meals. Electronic accounts for student lunches make it impossible for other kids to know who is getting a free or reduced rate and, unlike lunchtime, when all kids are in the cafeteria regardless of their ability to pay, early-morning breakfasts limited to needy kids forces those children to self-identify.
“It becomes a form of self-segregation,” Haldeman says. “That stigma is erased by offering universal free breakfast.”
According to data from the study, only about 38 percent of kids eligible for free breakfast took part at eligibility-based schools, which means that 62 percent of kids in need did not eat a free meal. More than 50 percent of needy kids turned out to eat breakfasts when universal-free meals were provided.
Ribar, an economics professor in the Bryan School of Business and Economics, was intrigued when he read in 2008 that the Guilford County Schools was debating whether to scrap its universal free breakfast option.
“Withdrawing a service just to study it is flat out wrong,” Ribar says. “We just approached GCS and said before you do anything, give us an opportunity to go to USDA and study what happens when you make those changes. It was pure serendipity.”