The Effect of Free School Meals on Household Food Purchases: Evidence from the Community Eligibility Provision

J Health Econ. 2022 Jul;84:102646. doi: 10.1016/j.jhealeco.2022.102646. Epub 2022 Jun 17.


We find access to universal free school meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) had a meaningful impact on grocery spending for households with children, with monthly food purchases declining by about $11, or 5 percent. For households in zip codes with higher exposure, the decline is as high as $39 per month, or 19 percent. The composition of food purchases also changes after CEP, with low income households experiencing a 3 percent improvement in dietary quality. Finally, CEP exposure is associated with an almost 5 percent decline in households classified as food insecure. Our results on the heterogeneous effects of CEP exposure by prior free/reduced price lunch eligibility reveal benefits in terms of both spending, dietary composition, and food insecurity for previously eligible low-income families, suggesting that the stigma of free school meals may be declining after universal access.

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Consumer Behavior
  • Food Assistance*
  • Food Supply
  • Humans
  • Lunch
  • Meals
  • Poverty
  • Schools*