The National School Lunch Program
What is the National School Lunch Program?
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) currently operates in over 100,000 public and private non-profit schools, as well as residential day care centers. Every day, these institutions serve 30.5 million lunches to students. Annually, 5 billion hot lunches are served to America’s kids. The program is administrated by the Food and Nutrition Service on the federal level and at the state level is run by the state’s Education Department. If a school district or eligible independent school chooses to participate in the NSLP, they receive cash subsidies and USDA foods from the US Department of Agriculture. By participating in this program and receiving this support, they agree to adhere to nutrition standards described in the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Participating schools must also offer free and reduced price lunches to students. There is also a school breakfast program, as well as an after-school snack initiative.
NSLP Participation Among Low-Income Children
Of the 30.5 million lunches served each day, 22 million are provided at a free or reduced price. The NSLP plays an important role in the food security of low-income children. For many children, the breakfast and lunch provided at their school is the only meal they can be confident in consistently receiving. Children with families whose income is at or below 130% of the poverty line ($31525 for a family of four in 2015-2016) are eligible for free lunches, while those whose income is 185% or below the the poverty line ($44,863 for a family of four in 2015-2016) can receive reduced-price lunches (charged no more than $.30 for breakfast and $.40 for lunch).
Certification for participation in the free-and-reduced-price program is completed by applying at the beginning of each year with district-provided applications. However, students from households enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDRIR), and certain individuals (children in foster care, migrant and runaway youth, etc) are automatically certified. School districts are required to “directly certify” students enrolled in SNAP by cross-referencing SNAP records with school enrollment lists, and have the option to directly certify TANF and TDRIR students as well. However, some categorically eligible children fall through the cracks and must be certified by application.
The Community Eligibility Provision allows schools in high-poverty districts to provide breakfast and lunch free to all students, and eliminates significant administrative cost by removing the need for applications. Any district, school, or group of schools with 40% or more “identified students” (students eligible without need for individual applications) can apply for Community Eligibility.
As this data from the USDA shows, the number of children paying full price for lunches has fallen, while the number of students receiving free lunches has risen steadily. This change corresponds to the Great Recession. The Great Recession resulted in families shifting down the income scale, making more children eligible for free-and-reduced lunches. At the same time, paid participation in the NSLP has fallen. Paid participants may be driven away by higher prices for lunches that were necessitated by increased nutritional standards.
The [USDA] estimated that nearly all schools would need to increase their lunch prices in response to the requirements, and these increases were expected to decrease the number of students eating school lunches as they chose not to eat, brought their lunches from home, or acquired food from other sources.
This shift away from purchasing school provided by the school undermines the nutritional standards set by the USDA.
The Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010
On December 13, 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act into law. With his signature, he funded school lunches for the next five years, and with the funding came a requirement for the USDA to update its school nutrition standards for the first time in 15 years. The new standards were championed by Michelle Obama, whose Let’s Move! program aimed to decrease childhood obesity.
The Act gave the USDA authority to set new standards for foods served during the school day, including those in vending machines, increased access to drinking water, increased access to the NSLP, improved training for school lunch providers, made nutrition facts more accessible, and attempted to improve the quality of food offered in schools.
The New Standards Required Schools to:
These cost cutting measures included reducing staffing, raising school lunch prices, putting off or canceling equipment investments altogether, and cutting into the program’s reserve fund. All of these measures are detrimental to the health of the NSLP. The higher lunch prices drive paying students away from the program, leading them to bring or buy food that is unhealthy. The decreased paid participation in the program also contributes to the financial losses. While the new standards were intended to decrease childhood obesity, they have created a host of new problems.