New FRAC Report Explores Extent of and Causes of Participation Shifts in School Lunch

school_lunch_chart_2015_thumbWashington, D.C.  – Wednesday, January 14, 2015 – The number of children participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is changing in ways that reflect events other than changes in nutrition rules, finds a new analysis (pdf) by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). The data analysis shows that lower family incomes and improvements to the eligibility process for school meals have led to a continuous increase in participation among low-income children; and rules on pricing of meals for other children have contributed to a multi-year decline in participation for those with higher family incomes. FRAC also noted these changes both are part of longer trends.

(Click on the image for full size chart.)

In the recent debate over new nutrition standards for school meals, some have claimed the nutrition rules are driving participation down. The new nutrition rules, however, were introduced in the 2012-2013 school year, in order to bring school meals in line with current dietary guidelines. FRAC’s analysis reveals that these participation changes have been percolating for a number of years with multiple factors at play.

“There have been shifts in school lunch participation, but FRAC’s research shows these changes have been occurring for a decade and well before the new school meal standards were introduced,” said FRAC President Jim Weill. “If policymakers want to respond to participation trends in school meals, it is imperative that they look at the larger picture.”

First, the number of low-income children seeking assistance rose. The recession led to many families seeing reduced wages – or losing jobs altogether. As the recession caused many families’ incomes to shift downward, the number of free and reduced-priced participants increased and the number of paid participants contracted. (Students moved from the paid category into eligibility for free and reduced-price meals.)

In addition, improvements to the eligibility process have led to more low-income families being determined as eligible for free or reduced-price school meals through more efficient and accurate cross-certification with other means-tested programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Through the Community Eligibility Provision, high poverty schools can reduce paperwork and offer free breakfast and lunch to all children.

Pushing in the other direction are higher prices for school meals. The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 required most school districts to increase “paid lunch” charges to students not eligible for free or reduced-price meals (also known as the “Paid Lunch Equity” provision). This went into effect in the 2011-2012 school year, making school meal participation more costly for families.

Finally, competitive foods – food sold outside the school meal program as a la carte items in the cafeteria, in vending machines, or in school stores – may very well be living up to their name. Research has shown that competitive foods drive children away from the school meals programs and particularly lead to decreased participation by students paying full price for school lunch.

In the report, FRAC outlines several recommendations to increase participation among paid students. The full report is available on FRAC’s website. Follow FRAC on Facebook and Twitter.