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The Birth of the Free and Reduced Lunch Program

The Commodity Donation Program of 1936 marked the first time the government became significantly involved in feeding kids at school.  Because crop surpluses are harmful to respective commodity prices, the act attempted to eliminate them by allotting excesses, in the form of free and reduced lunch, to underprivileged school children1.  However, many school boards did not espouse the program.  They were unwilling to invest in equipment and expansion for a program that was not certain to continue.  Additionally, food donation from the government fluctuated with commodity surpluses2.  So the 79th Congress considered a legislative proposal to make the Commodity Donation Program permanent.  It was signed into law as the National School Lunch Bill1.

This new law required Congress to appropriate funds each year to pay for school lunches for low income children to be distributed to each state.  Of these funds, a portion supported districts’ purchase of foodservice related equipment and administrative costs associated with program operation.  Since the passing of the original legislation, a number of amendments have been added2.  Yet the free and reduced lunch program has remained unchanged for more than a decade until recently when President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which created new standards for school meals.  These new standards’ intent is to be better align school meals with modern principles of food and nutrition and practical aspects and challenges of schools3.

What are the Eligibility Requirements

The federal government provides free and reduced lunch, breakfast, milk and summer meal programs based on income.  Standards of eligibility run from July 1-June 30 of each year and are based on the Federal Income Poverty Guidelines.  Families of school-age children are eligible for reduced lunches (and other meals) if their total household income is 185%, or less, of the poverty guidelines for their household size.  For example, a family of five qualifies for reduced meals if their household income is under $52,559 annually.  Qualification for free lunch occurs at 130% of the poverty guidelines, so the same family of five would qualify at or below an income of $36,933 annually.  Eligibility is the same in all 48 contiguous states.  However, there is a somewhat higher poverty standard for Alaska and Hawaii of approximately $1000 per household and $600 per household member4.

The Application Process for Free and Reduced Lunch

All schools send out applications for free or reduced lunch at the start of the year to each household.  Families can obtain an application at any time from the school throughout the year.  Once completed and returned to the school, the application is then reviewed to determine eligibility as established by the current Income Eligibility Guidelines.  All applicants currently receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are automatically qualified and children of parents receiving unemployment benefits are often eligible as well5.

Parents who complete an application must provide four categories of information.  First is household composition.  Parents list children if they are in school (regardless of age) and receive financial support by the applicant.  This also includes foster children.  Second is participation in other assistance programs.  These may include SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) and associated identification information.  Thirdly is household income, meaning all monies that support the family including public assistance, child support, alimony and child income.  Fourth is contact information and signature5.

Funding the School Lunch Program

For the fiscal year 2012, the national free and reduced lunch program cost $11.6 billion.  As might be expected, the cost of the program has substantially increased since its inception.  This is in part due to the increase in participation, but also inflationary factors.  In its first year, the program included 7.1 million participants.  This at a cost of $70 million, whereas today there are nearly 36 million students that participate in the National School Lunch Program.  The following chart and graph show the increase in participation and costs for the program over the decades to the present6,7:

table of the increase in participation and expenditures for the school lunch program over time

Is the Free and Reduced Lunch Program Effective?

There is a great deal of literature whose purpose is to examine the success of the National School Lunch Program.  Despite this, effectiveness in providing quality nutrition to pupils is still not conclusive8.  For instance, one study found that vitamin intake for NSLP participants was positive for several nutrients, although not vitamin C.  These meals also proved higher in fat and saturated fat than meals of non-participants9.  Another study that analyzed school lunches and non-school lunches among kindergarteners found a similar result.  School lunches were superior in some nutrient content, but not others.  Also, studies often do not measure what students actually consume.  They are also often limited in geographic scope and utilize varying methodologies8,10.

A recent update to the USDA standards for school meals includes healthier food for students, but has not proven effective.  Although the meals include historically superior nutritional content, students largely resist the changes.  More than 1 million students have stopped taking school lunch as a result of these changes 11.  Despite this setback, the program continues to provide nutritious meals to millions of under-privileged children.  Most of these kids would otherwise secure inferior alternatives or nothing at all.

My Personal Assessment of the School Lunch Program

It is clear that the National School Lunch Program’s main objective is to provide nutritious food to those that cannot otherwise afford them1.  Presumably, the implied requirements for this objective to occur are, one, that children are actually consuming the food in it’s entirety and two, that the program is sustainable.

It is evident that many children are unhappy with school lunches, especially recently.  This is a bit ironic since they don’t receive the nutrition the program is meant to provide because they refuse to eat the food.  Although not directly applicable to the effectiveness of the NSLP, this trend also contributes to significant food waste11.  Although these may not be failures of the program itself, they are failures to meet the program’s objective.  Providing non-ideal food options that school children will actually eat is far better than superior foods that they will not.

Additionally, the cost of the NSLP has significantly increased over time and has presumably become less and less cost-efficient.  Cost increases per student have risen some 40-fold since its inception (inflation adjusted; see chart above).  Thus an honest thinker must question the sustainability of the program.  This is particularly true under the assumption that the future will bring similar results.  The high cost of the NSLP coupled with the uncertainty of its real effectiveness, ought to compel those in power to consider significant changes in its operation, such as requiring school districts to create their own lunch programs or giving states the power to determine its administration themselves.  Shifting the burden to the free market is also a possible solution.  For example, delivery services or outside vendor food services would likely prove more cost-effective and attractive to students12.