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School Meal Participation Woes Due to Economy, Not New Regulations


The fluctuating levels of participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are often attributed solely to updated nutrition guidelines, but a recent study from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) suggests that’s not actually the case. Rather, changes in the economy have played a large role in participation trends—even before the nutrition guidelines went into effect.

“Overall, more low-income children are eating school lunch, but there have been declines among paid students,” explains Jessica Hewins, primary author of the report. “To understand why that is happening and what we can do to address it, we need to look at the full picture and find solutions that don't compromise the health and well-being of children.”

There are three types of NSLP participation: Free lunch, for students whose families earn 130 percent of the federal poverty level or below; reduced-price lunch, for students whose families have incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level; or “paid meals,” students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. By law, those eligible for reduced-price meals can’t be charged more than 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents per lunch, while prices of paid meals are determined by individual schools.

According to the study, one of the main factors in declining paid meal participation is the rising cost of paid meals. This isn’t a new trend: Similar declines were seen after legislation in the early ‘80s raised prices and overall participation fell 14 percent. More recently, the Paid Lunch Equity Provision of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (intended to make up the difference between the paid lunch federal reimbursement and the cost of the meals) has forced schools to raise meal prices. These seemingly small increases in price add up quickly, and mostly affect the millions of children in low-to-middle income families that don’t quite qualify for free or reduced price meals.

Another factor in participation levels has been the recession. Due to the recent recession, the number of children in living in poverty has increased from 13.3 million in 2007 to 14.7 million in 2010. At the height of the recession in 2010, a whopping 16.3 million children were living in household below the federal poverty level.

In addition, the slow recovery of the economy led more families to apply for government assistance programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The NSLP uses a direct certification process to identify children in families that make use of such programs, and automatically enroll them for free meals. The study notes that this process has gotten much more efficient in recent years, which has led to an increase in the number of students participating in free and reduced price meals.

One other provision set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is the Community Eligibility Provision, which says that schools with a certain percentage of low-income students can offer free breakfast and lunch to all students in the school. Schools that fall under this provision have seen increased participation in meals.

Finally, the study explains that competitive foods in schools have also played a role, especially among those not eligible for free or reduced lunches. Competitive foods are foods sold in schools outside of meals, and some children, especially those from higher-income families, choose these over school meals. The authors are hopeful that the implementation of Smart Snacks, which will lead to fewer unhealthy available options, will pull students back into the NSLP.

Overall, the report concludes that, “Attributing declines to the implementation of the nutrition requirements in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act ignores long-term trends in program participation,” and overlooks other key factors. Among other things, FRAC recommends that a closer look should be taken at the effects of the Paid Lunch Equity provision, as well as continued implementation of the Community Eligibility Program.

“While a variety of factors are at play influencing participation in the school lunch program, strong participation among all categories of students – free, reduced-price and paid – makes for stronger programs overall,” they say.