When I was a kid, I got weirdly obsessed with eating breakfast. As I remember it, this was almost entirely a result of this cereal commercial:

It wasn’t just the commercial, of course. I have three younger brothers; ours was a raucous house where I did, indeed, have “a lot to do before lunch.” Every. Single. Day. If I missed breakfast, those guys would eat me alive on the field, on the court, or at the card table.

Most of us take it as a given that breakfast is a critical foundation for young students’ success at school. It’s distracting to be hungry, and distracted students aren’t likely to learn as much as focused ones, right? This reasoning has led policymakers to seek ways to provide students with breakfast.

Yet a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “Expanding the School Breakfast Program: Impacts on Children’s Consumption, Nutrition, and Health,” digs into that line of thinking and finds that the relationship between breakfast and student success isn’t quite that simple.

Authors Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Mary Zaki examined U.S. Department of Agriculture data to: 1) gauge whether recent reforms to expand student breakfast access are working and 2) check whether these reforms influence student achievement.

Researchers have suggested that school breakfast programs targeted exclusively at low-income students often suffer from limited participation because of the stigma attached: Students who eat them are forced to essentially admit their families’ limited resources. In some places, this has been addressed by making subsidized meals universally available.

However, further research suggests that making breakfast programs universal still leaves out students who aren’t able to arrive at school early. Some policymakers have tried to address this by moving universal school breakfast out of the cafeteria—and into students’ classrooms. That way, students can eat during their first few minutes of the school day, rather than coming in before school starts.

So—does either of these changes work? Schanzenbach and Zaki found a mixed bag. Providing breakfast free in classrooms increased student consumption of a “nutritionally substantive breakfast” by 10 percentage points (from a starting baseline of 59 percent). The effects from providing universal breakfast in the cafeteria before school were less dramatic. The authors write that the in-classroom program “substantially increases both participation and the likelihood that a student actually eats breakfast, while a universal cafeteria-based program increases participation in the program but primarily alters where—and not whether—students eat breakfast.”

But, callous as it might sound, this is the simple part of the equation. We don’t provide public funds for school breakfast programs simply so that students will eat breakfast. We fund these programs because we believe that they support better child health and—perhaps—stronger academic outcomes.

Simply put, Schanzenbach and Maki found that the first year of in-class breakfasts had no statistically significant effects on students’: math and reading scores, health, or behavior. There was little change in ensuing years—the program simply doesn’t seem to be doing much to change students’ trajectories.

Are our intuitions about breakfast’s effects wrong? Not necessarily. When the authors broke out their data by subgroup, they found that in “high-poverty, urban schools, [in-class breakfast] increases participation by 138 percent, and increases breakfast eating by over 27 percent.” While they still found no improvements in student test scores or attendance, they saw some positive effects on minority students’ behavior. Finally, they also found that in-class breakfast improved student health and reduced obesity for some students.

Is that good enough to warrant public money? Your mileage may vary, depending on your ideological commitments. But it’s important to note, as Schanzenbach and Maki do in their report, that their analysis does not measure the effects of school breakfast in general. They were simply examining whether reforms that expand participation in school breakfast might expand existing effects. That is, while increasing school breakfast participation by 10 percentage points might not significantly improve academic outcomes, that says nothing about the potential effects of eliminating school breakfast for those who were already receiving it.

If nothing else, though, the report suggests that efforts to expand access to school breakfast shouldn’t necessarily be a top priority for policymakers. No matter how much students have to do before lunch.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams