Student Eligibility to Receive Free or Reduced Price School Meals
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Learn More About Food Security

Measures of Food Security on Kidsdata.org
Kidsdata.org provides the following indicators of food security:
A child’s family income must fall below 130% of the federal poverty guidelines ($31,005 for a family of four in 2014-2015) to qualify for free meals, or below 185% of the federal poverty guidelines ($44,123 for a family of four in 2014-2015) to qualify for reduced price meals.

* According to CDSS, more than half of CalFresh participants are children.
Food Security
Demographics
Family Income and Poverty
Childhood Adversity and Resilience
Homelessness
Housing Affordability
Nutrition
Why This Topic Is Important
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as not having consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living (1). Approximately one in five U.S. children live in food-insecure households (2). Food-insecure children are more likely to experience a host of health issues, including developmental, cognitive, behavioral, and mental health problems (3). Among pregnant women, food insecurity is associated with physical and mental health problems, as well as birth complications (3). Children and communities of color are disproportionately affected by food insecurity (3).

Food assistance programs, such as food stamps (i.e., SNAP, or CalFresh in California), the Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, provide a safety net to help ensure that low-income children, expectant mothers, and families get adequate nutrition. These programs have been shown to reduce poverty, improve birth outcomes, and improve children’s health in general (4, 5). Student participation in the National School Breakfast Program also is associated with improved school performance and cognitive functioning (6).
Student eligibility for free or reduced price school meals (one measure in this topic) also serves as a useful proxy indicator of family poverty. Income eligibility for these meals goes up to 185% of the federal poverty level, which was about $44,000 for a family of four in 2014-2015. The low 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 (7).

For more information on food security, please see kidsdata.org’s Research & Links section. Also see kidsdata.org’s other topics related to Family Economics.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Coleman-Jensen, A., et al. (2016). Household food security in the United States in 2015. (Economic Research Report No. 215). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Retrieved from: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=79760

2.  As cited on kidsdata.org, Children living in food insecure households. (2016). Gundersen, C., et al., Map the meal gap 2016: Food insecurity and child food insecurity estimates at the county level. Feeding America.

3.  California Dept. of Public Health, Office of Health Equity. (2015). Portrait of promise: The California statewide plan to promote health and mental health equity. Food Insecurity and Nutrition section. Retrieved from: http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/Documents/Accessible-CDPH_OHE_Disparity_Report_Final.pdf

4.  Gundersen, C. (2015). Food assistance programs and child health. The Future of Children, 25(1), 91-109. Retrieved from: http://www.futureofchildren.org/publications/journals/journal_details/index.xml?journalid=83

5.  Rossin-Slater, M. (2015). Promoting health in early childhood. The Future of Children, 25(1), 35-64. Retrieved from: http://www.futureofchildren.org/publications/journals/journal_details/index.xml?journalid=83

6.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Health and academic achievement. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/health_and_academics/pdf/health-academic-achievement.pdf

7.  As cited on kidsdata.org, Self-Sufficiency Standard. (2014). Insight Center for Community Economic Development and Dr. Diana Pearce, California Family Economic Self-Sufficiency Standard. Center for Women's Welfare, School of Social Work, University of Washington.
How Children Are Faring
Nearly 59% of all public school students in California are eligible for free or reduced price school meals (meaning their household incomes are less than about $44,000 for a family of four), according to 2015 data. This equates to over 3.5 million low-income students statewide, an increase from about 3.2 million (51%) in 2007. County and school district data show increases, as well; between 2007 and 2015, percentages rose in all but one county and in most school districts with available data. At the county level, the percentage of students eligible for free/reduced price meals ranged from 26% to 80% in 2015. Many more students are eligible for free meals than for reduced price meals. In 2015, over 3 million California students (50% of all students) were eligible for free meals, while over 500,000 (9%) were eligible for reduced price meals.

In 2015, almost 4.5 million Californians participated in the CalFresh supplemental food program, formerly known as Food Stamps. Hispanic/Latino and white households represented the majority of CalFresh participants in 2015, accounting for 75% of the approximately 2.1 million participating households.

According to 2014 estimates, almost 2.1 million California children (23% of the child population) lived in “food insecure” households with uncertain or inadequate access to food, down from nearly 2.5 million (27% of the child population) in 2011.
Policy Implications
Food insecurity—a lack of consistent, dependable access to enough food for healthy living—is a major public health problem in California and the U.S., affecting millions of children and families (1, 2). Policymakers can help by supporting efforts to ameliorate poverty, strengthen food assistance programs, and expand access to nutritious, affordable foods in low-income communities (3).

Food and nutrition assistance programs address food insecurity by providing low-income children and families with nutritious and affordable meals. However, these programs are not used by many who are eligible (4, 5). For example, in California public schools, 30% of the state’s 3.2 million low-income students miss out on free or reduced price school lunch, and 62% miss out on school breakfast (5).

According to research and subject experts, policy and program actions that could improve food security include:
  • Utilizing authority under state and federal law to support efforts to make it simpler and less stigmatizing for students to access free and reduced price school meals, while streamlining administration at the school level; for example, encouraging eligible schools to use the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows them to offer free meals to all students (6, 7)
  • Adopting school district-wide use of effective models for serving free or reduced price school breakfast, such as serving it during the school day, in class, or outside of traditional settings, to increase participation and decrease stigma associated with subsidized breakfast (7)
  • Assisting school districts that are struggling to meet the new federal nutrition standards for food sold at schools (6)
  • Supporting efforts to expand and increase participation in federal Summer Nutrition Programs, which provide free meals to low-income children during the summer months (3, 8)
  • Addressing under-enrollment in other food safety net programs—such as CalFresh (food stamps) and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)—through outreach to improve public awareness and perceptions of the programs, and by reducing barriers to applying and maintaining enrollment (4)
  • Supporting the work of food councils and community groups that are promoting access to sustainable, affordable, and nutritious food sources through such efforts as community and home gardens, farmers markets, urban agriculture, and public education (2, 3)
  • Maintaining, strengthening, and building on state and local policies aimed at reducing poverty among working families in California, including CalWORKs, the state Earned Income Tax Credit, and minimum wage laws (9)
For more policy recommendations and research on this topic, see kidsdata.org's Research & Links section or visit California Food Policy Advocates and the Food Research & Action Center. Also see Policy Implications on kidsdata.org under Family Income and Poverty and Nutrition.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Coleman-Jensen, A., et al. (2016). Household food security in the United States in 2015. (Economic Research Report No. 215). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Retrieved from: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=79760

2.  California Food Policy Council. (2015). California Food Policy Council 2015 report on legislation related to food and farming. Retrieved from: http://www.rootsofchange.org/wp-content/uploads/CAFPC-2015-LEGISLATIVE-REPORT-final.pdf

3.  California Dept. of Public Health, Office of Health Equity. (2015). Portrait of promise: The California statewide plan to promote health and mental health equity. Food Insecurity and Nutrition section. Retrieved from: http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/Documents/Accessible-CDPH_OHE_Disparity_Report_Final.pdf

4.  Beck, L., et al. (2015). Enrollment in health and nutrition safety net programs among California's children. Public Policy Institute of California. Retrieved from: http://www.ppic.org/main/publication.asp?i=1126

5.  California Food Policy Advocates. (2016). School meal access and participation: California statewide summary 2014-15. Retrieved from: http://cfpa.net/school-meal-analysis-2014-15

6.  Food Research & Action Center. (2015). National School Lunch Program: Trends and factors affecting student participation. Retrieved from: http://frac.org/pdf/national_school_lunch_report_2015.pdf

7.  Food Research & Action Center. (2016). School breakfast scorecard: 2014-2015 school year. Retrieved from: http://frac.org/pdf/School_Breakfast_Scorecard_SY_2014_2015.pdf

8.  Fischer Colby, A., & Shimada, T. (2016). School’s out…Who ate? A report on summer nutrition in California. California Food Policy Advocates. Retrieved from: http://cfpa.net/sowa-2016

9.  Danielson, C. (2016). California's future: Social safety net. Public Policy Institute of California. Retrieved from: http://www.ppic.org/main/publication.asp?i=1080
Websites with Related Information
Key Reports
County/Regional Reports
More Data Sources For Food Security