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Emily Gutierrez

Emily Gutierrez.

Over the last decade, more and more schools have adopted Universal Free Meals (UFM), a program that provides meals free of charge to all students, regardless of household income. Recent research finds UFM increases participation in school meals, improves test scores, and reduces incidences of bad behavior. Additionally, advocates cite stigma reduction as one of UFM’s many benefits, but to date, scholars have yet to provide empirical evidence of this claim. This paper fills the gap in the literature by being the first to examine whether UFM influences student perceptions of school climate. I use individual, student survey responses and school meal participation data from New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) to investigate whether and to what extent UFM changes participation behavior and student perceptions of their school climate. Using a difference-in-differences design, I exploit students’ staggered exposure to UFM, among those that are ever exposed, to investigate if UFM influences participation and improves student perceptions of bullying, fighting, respect, and safety. I find UFM increases school lunch participation among students that were previously eligible for free meals but rarely participated, suggesting that UFM affects participation patterns beyond simply reducing the price of food. All students, regardless of socioeconomic status, report reductions in perceptions of bullying and fighting within school, as well as improvements in perceptions of safety outside of school. Notably, students ever designated as eligible for free/reduced price meals and those that ate school lunches last year report feeling safer inside the school cafeteria. Thus, not only does UFM improve perceptions associated with stigma for students who directly interact with UFM, but the program also has positive effects for all students regardless of their socioeconomic status.

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