The Effect of Breakfast in the Classroom on Obesity and Academic Performance: Evidence from New York City

Tuesday, June 24, 2014: 1:35 PM
Waite Phillips 205 (Waite Phillips Hall)

Author(s): Sean P Corcoran

Discussant: Roy Wada

Since 1966, the federal School Breakfast Program (SBP) has subsidized breakfasts for needy children, with the goals of reducing hunger, improving nutrition, and facilitating learning (Bhattacharya, Currie, & Haider, 2006; Millimet, Tchernis, & Husain, 2010). Participation in the SBP, however, typically falls well below that of the school lunch program. In New York City, for example, less than one third of all students take a breakfast each day, even though it is provided free to all and roughly three in four students live in low income households.
To increase participation in the SBP, some school districts have adopted Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC), which serves breakfast directly to students at the start of the school day, rather than make it available in the cafeteria before school. The logic is that by providing breakfast at the start of class, students unable or unwilling to arrive early for breakfast will be more likely to participate. BIC may also eliminate stigma associated with having to arrive early for a subsidized meal.
Research shows that the consumption, timing, and nutritional quality of breakfast can affect children’s cognitive performance. While there has been little work evaluating BIC in particular, two recent studies by economists found moving breakfast to the classroom can have positive effects on achievement and behavior (Imberman & Kugler, 2012; Dotter, 2012). The long-run impact of BIC on obesity and health, however, is unknown and a priori ambiguous. There is evidence that a regular, nutritionally appropriate breakfast can help individuals maintain a healthy weight (Cho et al., 2003). But there are also concerns BIC facilitates over-eating. In NYC, expansion of BIC was temporarily halted by the Bloomberg administration when a city study found students were frequently eating two breakfasts—one at home and another during school. The city council and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture disagreed, and called for expansion of the program.
In this paper, we exploit the staggered introduction of BIC in NYC to estimate its impact on obesity, academic performance, and school attendance. We begin by investigating whether a school's adoption of BIC had a significant impact on daily participation in the SBP. We then match data on BIC adoption to administrative data on NYC public school students over five years, including the Fitnessgram which collects information on students’ weight, height, and physical fitness each year. Our combined data set includes more than 800,000 students annually for five years. We employ a difference-in-difference design, contrasting observationally similar students in schools that did and did not adopt BIC, before and after implementation.
We find the introduction of BIC had a substantial effect on participation in the SBP and no spillover effect on lunch program participation. There is no evidence BIC increased body mass, and some evidence that it reduced the incidence of obesity among some subgroups of students. We find mostly insignificant effects of the program on achievement, far from those found in earlier studies. Finally, we find consistently positive, but small, effects of BIC on attendance.