NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Nearly 13 million children in over 91,000 schools participate in the USDA School Breakfast Program, offering "school children of all economic backgrounds a well-balanced, healthy meal." At a cost of $3.3 billion in 2012, the USDA says school breakfasts can "help math, reading and standardized test scores," as well as "reduce tardiness and absences, and help children behave better."

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a nonprofit organization with a goal to eradicate hunger in the U.S., is working with the USDA and other public agencies to expand participation in the school breakfast program.

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But research conducted by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an associate professor in the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University, says there is little evidence of overall improvements in "nutritional intake, health, behavior or achievement" from the program.

In a working research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Schanzenbach says the total number of school breakfasts doubled between 1989 and 2000 – with nearly three-quarters of children now having access to breakfast at school. However, Schanzenbach concludes that the nutritional impact of a school breakfast – or lack of it -- is often offset at other times during the day, with 24-hour calorie and nutrition fundamentally unchanged. While serving breakfast in a classroom, rather than in a cafeteria, raises the likelihood that a student may eat breakfast – it also increases the probability that a student may actually eat two breakfasts.

"We find no positive impact on test scores and some evidence of negative impacts," Schanzenbach writes. "Similarly, there appears to be no overall positive impact on attendance rates or child health."

However, the researcher notes that there is "suggestive evidence" that breakfast served in a classroom, rather than in a cafeteria, may improve behavior and health in some "highly disadvantaged subgroups."

Schanzenbach adds that the research does not suggest that reducing or eliminating the school breakfast program is warranted; she says the results "speak only to attempts to further expand" the program.

"These results indicate that much of the increase in program participation induced by program expansions represents substitution from consumption of breakfast at home to school. A substantial share of children is induced to start consuming breakfast by the program, and a slightly smaller share is induced to consume two breakfasts. The relatively modest measured benefits suggest that policy-makers should carefully consider how to trade these off against the increased program costs," Schanzenbach concludes.

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet