In Jishnu Das' Notes From the Field: Playing Chicken in India post, he explored an impact evaluation he was involved in, over a decade ago on India's mid-day meal scheme. Keeping on this topic of school meals is especially pertinent at this time.
In the United States, earlier this week (as reported on Sara Mead's new Policy Notebook ), the House Education and Labor Committee began considering changes to the Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act , which reauthorizes funding for the federal school lunch program . With an allocation of around $12 billion, this year, the federal school lunch program aims to increase access to school lunch and out-of-school programs, whle improving the nutritional value of school meals.
What does the research say on the importance of healthy school meals?
A recent study (that I found through Tim Harford) by Michele Belot  and Jonathan James – economists at Nuffield College, Oxford, and at the University of Essex respectively, considered the efforts of UK-based celebrity chef-cum-campaigner, Jamie Oliver – affectionately known as the ‘Naked Chef,’ as he set about on a feeding frenzy for healthy school meals under his "Healthy Schools" program. His campaign has effectively become a randomized trial in getting school children to eat healthy school lunches.
Belot and James explain that their research  traces:
the unique features of the “Jamie Oliver Feed Me Better” campaign, lead in 2004 in the UK, to evaluate the impact of healthy school meals on educational outcomes. The campaign introduced drastic changes in the menus of meals served in schools of one borough – Greenwich  – and banned junk food in those schools. Since the meals were introduced in only one Local Education Area, neighbouring Local Education Areas obtained none of these advantages – and indeed, because the programme wasn’t broadcast until after the project was well under way, probably knew little about it. These created all the conditions for a credible pilot project with neighbouring areas acting as control groups.
Over a yearlong period, Belot and James found that the effects of eating healthy, by cutting sugars and saturated fats out of school meals were “quite large”: Their estimates show that the campaign increased the percentage of primary school pupils reaching the national target level in English standardised assessments by 4.5 percentage points and the percentage of pupils reaching above the national target level by 6 percentage points in the Science standardised assessments. They also find that authorised absences (which are likely to be linked to sickness) drop by 15% on average.
Belot and James' surprising conclusion:
These effects are particularly noteworthy since they only capture direct and relatively short-term effects of improvement in children’s diet on educational achievements. One could have expected that changing diet habits is a long and difficult process, which would possibly only have effects after a long time, effects that would be hard to measure.
It is a shame  then that the UK Government's new Health Secretary has decided to scrap government support to Jamie Oliver's promising program.
Meanwhile, in the American context support for healthy meals is growing
Across the pond  the Obamas are firmly backing healthy school meals, as the First Lady promotes her "Let's Move" initiative which is working toward " raising a healthier generation of kids." It was also announced  that, "the Obama administration will begin a drive… to expel Pepsi, French fries and Snickers bars from the nation’s schools in hopes of reducing the number of children who get fat during their school years."
While junk food was banished from official school breakfast and lunch programs, vending machines owned and stocked by Masterfoods and Kraft and other such confectionary companies still offer an array of unhealthy options to America’s children. This money is often used to finance sports or other extracurricular programs.
In 2005, Patricia Anderson  and Kristin Butcher wrote a paper entitled, “Reading, Writing and Raisinets: Are School Finances Contributing to Children’s Obesity?” They examined whether schools under financial pressure are more likely to adopt potentially unhealthy food policies, given that the money raised from junk food can help in running the school. They found that a 10 percentage point increase in the probability of access to junk food leads to about a one percent increase in students' body mass index (BMI).
However, Anderson and Butcher caution:
This average effect is entirely driven by adolescents who have an overweight parent, for whom the effect of such food policies is much larger (2.2%). This suggests that those adolescents who have a genetic or family susceptibility to obesity are most affected by the school food environment. Their rough calculation suggests that the increase in availability of junk foods in schools can account for about one-fifth of the increase in average BMI among adolescents over the last decade.
Changing eating habits at the family level
So while the drive to cater health school meals and rid schools of vending machines is one way to tackle obesity, it looks like solutions should run deeper and changing eating habits at the family level could have a great effect. Jeff Miron’s  suggestion of applying health insurance premiums that increase with weight above the "healthy" threshold just might be food for thought, (excuse the over-indulgent pun!)
Photo credits: the first image ("Jamie Oliver was feeding students to better test scores, but no longer") comes from a Wikipedian. The second image (" Might look tasty - but is it brain power? Michelle doesn't think so") comes from the Wikipedian named Kici.