Eat Healthy and Ace Your Exams

Our education system is a results-based, knowledge driven enterprise. The success of the system is measured by how well students perform on tests and demonstrate their knowledge. Poor test results are an indicator that students aren’t absorbing the material well and that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. But is there something that influences how well students perform on standardized tests? The findings of a recent study point to the fact that healthier school lunches may have a direct effect on test scores and what students are able to achieve.

The Previous Approach

In 2002, a sweeping piece of legislation, The No Child Left Behind Act, was enacted to improve student test scores and ensure school compliance with meeting these standards. Targets were set by this legislation which educators at the local and state levels had to meet. If these targets were not met, sanctions were levied.

There were numerous approaches taken to improve students’ performances on tests. These included:

  • Extending school days
  • Banning cell phones at school
  • Giving teachers bonus pay if their students test scores were meeting the set targets

Food for Thought

In a recent research paper put together by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, economists have set out to determine whether healthy school lunches could have any effect on student achievement and test scores. Policy interventions are typically very expensive. Researchers set out to determine whether a highly cost-effective option such as improving the quality of the food students received for lunch could improve their overall performance.


The research paper ultimately found that students who went to schools which had contracts with vendors that provided healthier lunches performed somewhat better on standardized state tests. But how did they reach these conclusions?

Michael L. Anderson, one of the co-authors of the study and an associate professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, said:

 “When school boards are going out and contracting with these vendors, what they're thinking is that they're going to improve the health of the students, that they'll get them to eat healthier. I don't think they're thinking of it as a tool to actually improve academic performance [but] we found that it is. Something that is basically cheap, that is going to improve student health, and that has test-score gains seems like it would be very attractive [to] policymakers.”

In order to make the crucial link between food quality and test performances, the researchers collected data from the California Department of Education on school districts’ meal vendors. The data was taken for the academic years from 2008-09 to 2012-13. In that time period, about 12% of the public schools in California (which is about 1,192 schools) contracted with an outside vendor to provide lunch for at least one school year.

To determine the nutritional value/content of the meals being provided, the team hired the Nutrition Policy Institute, a research unit which is based at the University of California. NPI determined the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), which is a measure of the dietary quality of food set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of a number of the school lunch menus provided by different vendors. Those vendors which had above-median scores were considered as healthy school-lunch providers for the purpose of this study.

The study found that schools which had contracted with a healthy meal vendor saw improved test scores by between .03 and .04 standard deviations in their students. This is statistically significant, with Anderson noting that while the effect “is not huge … but it is notable.”

A Better Way to Improve Test Scores?

As mentioned earlier, policy interventions are extremely costly. This research paper draws the conclusions that “lower-cost policies with modest effects on student test scores [that] may generate a better return than costly policies with larger absolute effects.”

Sean Patrick Corcoran, an associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, stated that “I've seen a number of other rigorous studies that also find a connection between healthy eating and academic performance. Students who eat regular, healthy meals are less likely to be tired, are more attentive in class, and retain more information.”

Furthermore, Corcoran pointed out that we may not have to wait very long to see the positive results of such a strategy. It has been found that providing healthier meal options also provides certain immediate results. He said “Even when schools serve calorie-rich food on test day, students perform better on those tests.”

Reflections on the Findings

On average, it has been found that healthier meals could help raise student achievement by about 4 percentile points. This is quite a significant raise in the potential results from test scores. Not only would providing healthy lunch meals help to increase test scores and student performance, it would also lead to students becoming and feeling much healthier too.

Studies show that eating a balanced diet can provide a number of benefits including increased concentration, more energy, better focus, sharper memory, greater willingness to participate in class, etc.

One student, Kweko Power, also saw the direct benefits of eating healthier lunches. She said “When students eat healthier and better food, they get more stamina because their body doesn't have to work as hard to process what they’re eating”.

 The results from this study may herald a new approach taken to improving test scores; an approach which would be both cost-effective and beneficial to the overall health of students.

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