WASD backpack program

A Williamsport High School student organizes food items on a shelf.

Williamsport, Pa. – New research from Lycoming College’s Mica Kurtz, Ph.D., associate professor of economics, provides strong evidence that weekend student lunch programs produce higher reading and math scores in young students.

An article on the topic, “Weekend Feeding (“BackPack”) programs and student outcomes,” written by Kurtz and co-authors Karen Smith Conway, Ph.D., and Robert D. Mohr, Ph.D., of the University of New Hampshire, was published in the December issue of Economics of Education Review.

For many students of low-income families, free school lunches and breakfasts may be the only regular meals they eat. BackPack programs send students home on Friday afternoons with nutritious, easy-to-prepare food to sustain them through the weekend so they can arrive well-fed and ready to learn on Monday morning.

Established in Arkansas in 1996, BackPack programs have experienced a growth explosion with more than 500,000 children served in 2018, yet the subject remained unstudied in economics literature for decades.

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank operates BackPack programs throughout its coverage area, including the Williamsport Area School District's program that launched in 2017.

BackPack programs are often promoted as enhancing educational outcomes and common sense would dictate that this is the case, but there was previously a lack of concrete scientific research on the subject. Kurtz and his team set out to examine the claim by combining data collected from a large Feeding America BackPack program with administrative data on student test scores and absences in northwest North Carolina elementary schools with primary data on program participation.

Their study provides a formal presentation of the causal effects of BackPack programs on academic performance in the form of higher reading and math scores. These effects are robust and appear strongest for the youngest and lowest performing students.

“Childhood food insecurity is a significant problem for many students in this country; we have school breakfast and school lunch programs to help, but over the weekend many students (and their families) can really struggle,” said Kurtz.

“There is strong evidence to suggest that expansion of these programs could be a cost effective way to not only reduce childhood food insecurity but also improve scholastic outcomes for the most needy students, and this evidence is actionable. I would love to find out that reading our research led some localities to adopt a program or expand an existing program.”

Read the full study here

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