Measures available on kidsdata.org include the number and percentage of K-12 students eligible for the Free or Reduced Price School Meal Program during 2007-2011, and the number and percentage of K-12 students enrolled in the Free or Reduced Price Meal Program during 1998-2006. (Enrollment data are not available after 2006.) In addition, data are provided by enrollment and eligibility status for free meals only, reduced price meals only, or neither.
A child's family income must fall below 130% of the federal poverty guidelines ($29,055 for a family of four in 2011) to qualify for free meals, or below 185% of the federal poverty guidelines ($41,348 for a family of four in 2011) to qualify for reduced-cost meals.
Free or reduced price school meal (FRPM) programs provide a safety net to help ensure that low-income students get adequate nutrition (1). These programs help to address food insecurity among low-income students, and can improve students’ physical health (including obesity), behavior, school performance, and cognitive development, research suggests (2, 3).
Student eligibility for FRPM programs serves as a proxy measure of family poverty, as the federal poverty threshold tends to underestimate the extent of poverty, particularly in high cost areas. Research indicates that families in California can earn two or more times the federal poverty level and still struggle to meet their basic needs (4). Income eligibility for FRPM programs goes up to 185% of federal poverty (about $41,000 for a family of four in 2011 – see more details above).
Nationwide, the percentage of public school students eligible for free or reduced price meals increased from 42% in 2006-07 to 47% in 2009-10 (5).
For more information on Free/Reduced Price School Meals, please see kidsdata.org’s Research & Links section. Also see kidsdata.org’s other topics related to family economics.
Sources for this narrative:
- Wight, V. R., Thampi, K, & Briggs, J. (2010). Who are America’s poor children? Examining food insecurity among children in the United States. New York, New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. Retrieved from: http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_958.html.
- Grundersen, C., Kreider, B., & Pepper, J. (2012). The impact of the National School Lunch Program on child health: A nonparametric bounds analysis. Journal of Econometrics, 166(1), 79-91. doi: 10.1016/j.jeconom.2011.06.007.
- Food Research & Action Center. (2010). Child nutrition fact sheet: National School Lunch Program. Retrieved from: http://frac.org/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/cnnslp.pdf
- As cited on kidsdata.org, California family economic Self-Sufficiency Standard, 2011. Insight Center for Community Economic Development and Dr. Diana Pearce, Center for Women's Welfare, School of Social Work, University of Washington. Retrieved from: http://www.insightcced.org/communities/cfess/ca-sss.html
- As cited on kidsdata.org, Students eligible to receive free or reduced price school meals, 2010. California Department of Education, Free/Reduced Price Meals Program & CalWORKS Data Files, http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/sh/cw/filesafdc.asp; U.S. Department of Education, NCES Common Core of Data, http://nces.ed.gov/ccd/bat/index.asp.
School breakfast and lunch can provide low-income children with nutritious and affordable meals, but these programs do not serve many children who are eligible to receive them for free or at reduced price. Several challenges hinder enrollment and participation in free and reduced price school meals. Paperwork issues and stigma are among factors that prevent households from applying (1, 3, 4, 5). Efforts to serve students when and where they are able to eat (e.g. serving breakfast from multiple campus locations and/or after the school day begins) are known to significantly improve participation in school breakfast (1, 2, 3).
According to research and subject experts, policy-related actions that could improve free and reduced price school meal participation include:
- Utilizing authority under state law and the recently reauthorized federal Child Nutrition Act to make it simpler and less stigmatizing for students to access free and reduced-price school meals, while streamlining administration at the school level; this includes “direct certification,” which allows school districts to automatically qualify children in families receiving CalWORKS or food stamps for free school meals (4, 5, 6)
- Adopting school district-wide use of effective service models like Classroom Breakfast, Second Chance Breakfast, and Grab n’ Go (different approaches to serving breakfast during the school day, in class, or outside of traditional settings) to increase participation and decrease stigma associated with subsidized breakfast (1, 2, 3)
For more policy recommendations and research on this topic, see the Research & Links section on kidsdata.org or visit California Food Policy Advocates, the BreakfastFirst Campaign, the Food Research & Action Center, and Action for Healthy Kids. Also see Policy Implications on kidsdata.org under Family Income & Poverty, and Nutrition/Breakfast.
Sources for this narrative:
- BreakfastFirst. (2010). Research and resources. Retrieved from: http://www.breakfastfirst.org/tools/resources.shtml
- Shimada, T. (2009). Evaluating school breakfast and implementing second chance breakfast: Newark Unified School District. California Food Policy Advocates. Retrieved from: http://www.breakfastfirst.org/pdfs/NUSD_full%20report%20in%20color_final.pdf
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2009). School breakfast program: Strategies for school breakfast expansion. Retrieved from: http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/breakfast/expansion/expansionstrategies.htm
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2009). Direct certification in the national school lunch program: State implementation progress. Report to congress. Retrieved from: http://www.fns.usda.gov/ORA/menu/Published/CNP/FILES/NSLPDirectCertification2009.pdf
- Hsu, C. (2009). There IS such a thing as a free lunch: Effective direct certification and direct verification to ensure adequate nutrition for California’s children. California Food Policy Advocates. Retrieved from: http://cfpa.net/ChildNutrition/ChildNutrition_CFPAPublications/FreeLunchDirectCertification-FullReport-2009.pdf
- 111th Congress. (2010). Healthy, hunger-free kids act of 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=s111-3307
More than half (57%) of all public school students in California are eligible for free or reduced price school meals (meaning their household incomes are less than about $41,000 for a family of four), according to 2011 data. This equates to about 3.5 million low-income students statewide, an increase from 3.16 million (51%) in 2007. At the county level, the percentage of students eligible for free/reduced price meals ranged from 26% to 75% in 2011. County and school district data show increases, as well; between 2007 and 2011, percentages rose in all but one county and in 81% of school districts with available data.
As in previous years, far more California students are eligible for free meals than reduced price meals, at 49% vs. 8% in 2011.
Statewide enrollment in the Free or Reduced Price School Meal Program held fairly steady during 1998-2001 (around 47-48%), but then increased between 2002 and 2006, from 47% of students to 51%. Enrollment varied widely by county and school district. (Enrollment data are not available after 2006.)