Just like textbooks and pencils, food is a critical school supply that helps kids learn and excel academically. When it comes to feeding hungry kids, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of the most powerful tools we have to get kids the education they need. For decades, SNAP has successfully decreased food insecurity and lifted millions of Americans out of poverty. SNAP is critical for helping children grow up healthier and break the poverty cycle.

Before any big test, students are told to make sure they eat a good breakfast. For some kids, however, that may not be possible. New research shows a clear link between having enough food and test scores, especially for kids from low-income families.

Households receiving SNAP aid tend to use most of their benefits within the first week or two of receipt, creating a cyclical shopping pattern. Research shows that SNAP participants’ spending patterns are not driven by stockpiling of nonperishables or purchasing premium items during the first two weeks of the SNAP benefit cycle. Due to the inadequacy of SNAP benefits, many households run out of food during the third or fourth week. A new study, “Hungry for Success? SNAP Timing, High Stakes Exam Performance, and College Attendance,” from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows students in families that rely on SNAP who took college entrance exams more than two weeks after their families received SNAP benefits had lower test scores—around 6 points, or 0.06 standard deviations—than those who took the exam within two weeks after receiving benefits. Students with the misfortune of testing at the end of their benefit period are likely hungrier and unable to put forth their best effort.

SNAP disbursement varies by state. Some disbursement dates are based on a number-based ID; others are based on the first letter of a family’s name. Each household receives benefits on the same day each month, and no household currently receives SNAP benefits more than once per month. Unfortunately, benefits are low, and the need is vast.

A Body of Research

This new research linking academic performance to SNAP benefits is in line with previous studies. For example, a 2015 study from the Council of Economic Advisers highlighting the long-term benefits of SNAP found that early access to SNAP gave kids from low-income families an 18% increase in the likelihood of finishing high school (with an overall mean of 80%) than those who didn’t have early access to SNAP.

Students enjoying breakfast at Galena Park High School in Texas.

Additionally, “Hungry for Success?” quotes two other recent works that back up the findings: “Food Instability and Academic Achievement: A Quasi-Experiment Using SNAP Benefit Timing” by Anna Gassman-Pines and Laura Bellows, which shows correlations between increases in test scores and SNAP disbursement and “When Does It Count? The Timing of Food Stamp Receipt and Educational Performance” by Chad D. Cotti, John Gordanier, and Orgul D. Ozturk, which shows that test scores go down the further students get from a SNAP disbursement date.

The repercussions are significant: The “Hungry for Success?” study shows that low-income students who tested at the end of their benefits period were less likely to attend a four-year college. Of a sample of 170,000 SAT test-takers from Arizona, Washington, D.C., Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Utah, and West Virginia, that’s approximately 1,150 fewer students earning a four-year college experience [or degree] potentially due to test timing. Researchers estimate that if those 1,150 students forego college altogether, they will jointly lose $934 million in earnings during their lifetimes. If those students choose to attend a two-year college, foregone wages are estimated to be at least $85.3 million. Even students who choose to attend a less-selective four-year university will earn less on average, depending on SAT scores and geography.

The SAT and other college entrance exams are unlike other standardized tests in that while they are high stakes for students, they are not high stakes for schools, as they are not tied to any funding or resources. Of course, unlike those other standardized tests, college entrance exams are not offered directly by the schools, which therefore have little opportunity to mitigate this effect.

The effects of this phenomenon could be minimized, however, by groups such as the College Board offering college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT during the week, when students can receive school meals, rather than on Saturdays. Schools should also consider offering exams earlier in the SNAP benefit cycle when households have more food. Additionally, testing centers could consider offering breakfast when the exam is given on a Saturday.

However, it’s clear the root of the issue lies much deeper, and broader action is needed.

Rooting Out Hunger

Before the pandemic, 62% of parents in low-income households said they worried about food for their children running out before they had money to buy more. Fifty-nine percent of kids from low-income families said they’d gone to school hungry, and 46% of those kids said that hunger had hurt their performance in school. Hunger impacts learning and academic performance throughout the year, not just on a specific date. Kids shouldn’t have to worry about hunger on any date—high stress, low stress, test day, normal class day. We have the tools and the resources to ensure every child in this country gets the nutrition they need to learn and grow. It’s up to us to make No Kid Hungry a reality.

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed millions of families into unemployment, food insecurity, and hardship, exacerbating already unacceptable levels of hunger and poverty. As a result, 1 in 4 kids could face hunger this year.

As child hunger rates skyrocketed during the COVID-19 crisis, new and innovative programs, policies, and procedures designed to help feed kids in need were implemented across the nation. SNAP, however, remains one of our nation’s most effective anti-hunger programs.

SNAP helps supplement family grocery budgets, and the program has been especially critical during the pandemic because it helps families purchase more of the food their children need when they need it. But the current program isn’t meeting the vast need. To reach more kids with this food, lawmakers should:

  • Increase the federal income eligibility level for SNAP to 200% of the federal poverty level, or $43,000 for a family of three.
  • Permanently increase SNAP benefits to more accurately reflect the costs of a nutritious diet.
  • Continue to let states set more realistic asset limits for SNAP eligibility so recipients can own a reliable car or build modest emergency savings without putting their grocery benefits in jeopardy.
  • Offer improved supports such as nutrition education and effective training programs to help provide more opportunities to families receiving the benefit.

Another important program is the federal summer meals program, which helps feed kids at risk of hunger during the summer months, even when schools are closed. It can also be a crucial tool for students taking a college entrance exam in the summer. But the way the program was designed means it does not fully meet the needs of families and children today, especially those living in rural and hard-to-reach communities.

In 2020, the program reached many more children by waiving program restrictions and providing families direct benefits. Lawmakers should expand this process and:

  • Permanently expand and authorize the Summer EBT program (currently a demonstration program in a handful of states), which provides families with additional grocery benefits over the summer.
  • Authorize an option for “noncongregate” sites and provide other flexibilities, allowing meals to come to children instead of requiring children to travel to centralized sites every day to eat meals.
  • Reduce red tape and excessive bureaucracy by removing the duplication between after-school and summer meals programs, making it easier for schools and community organizations to serve needed meals year-round.
  • Federal nutrition programs work together to feed kids, but they aren’t reaching enough of the families who need them. Eliminating barriers and driving efficient, commonsense policy changes will help ensure more children get the basic nutrition they need to grow up healthy, educated, and strong. In addition to strengthening SNAP and modernizing summer meal programs, students across the country would also benefit if lawmakers would:
  • Permanently authorize the Pandemic EBT system, allowing authorities to quickly deliver increased nutritional aid during times of crisis.
  • Extend the benefits of the Community Eligibility Provision, a policy that cuts through red tape and helps schools in high-need communities offer meals at no cost to students by changing the eligibility structure of the program to allow more schools to participate.

All of these policies and programs are essential, but they’re also pieces to a bigger puzzle. They’re designed to work together to make sure kids get the nutrition they need no matter where they live, what their family situation is, how old they are, or what time of the year it is. Working together, they weave a net tight enough that no child slips through. The food provided by these federal programs does much more than fill a child’s empty stomach; it helps that child grow up smarter and healthier, and that means a smarter, stronger, healthier nation. —

Margaret Read is the senior research and evaluation manager at Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign.