State-level data shows that fewer school children who do not qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches are paying full price for meals, Katherine Ralston and Constance Newman report for Amber Waves, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The main reasons are that the number of children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals increased, school lunch prices increased, the recession has led some families to opt to pack lunches and changing nutrition standards are causing some children to lose interest in eating school meals.
In fiscal year 2014, 37 percent of students paid full-price for school lunches, down from 47 percent in fiscal year 2008, Ralston and Newman write. The number of children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals increased by five million over the past decade — overall the percent of children that qualify for free or reduced-price meals has increased from 60 percent to 72 percent.
During that same time the number of children paying full-price decreased, Ralston and Newman write. “The 2007-09 recession and slow recovery not only resulted in more students’ qualifying for free lunches but also reduced the ability of many non-eligible families to pay for lunch…Americans cut back on the number of meals and snacks eaten away from home, as unemployment both reduced incomes and increased the time available for preparing meals at home.” Increasing costs for a paid lunch are especially high in rural areas, where schools reported an average increase of 4.7 percent, compared to 3.4 percent in urban areas.
“At the same time, major changes were made to school meal program reimbursements and revenue requirements, along with changes to the meals themselves,” Ralston and Newman write. “In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The Act addressed concerns about the nutritional quality of children’s diets, school meals and competitive foods available in schools (those not part of the school meal, such as a la carte items or foods and drinks sold in vending machines). Key provisions of the Act also addressed concerns about the financial and administrative challenges of school meal operations.”
Some students have refused to eat the healthier foods, complaining that the food doesn’t taste good, and have gone to social media to post photos of what they say are unappetizing meals. School officials have also complained about an increase in the amount of food waste. A recent study said the healthy lunch program is leading to less intake of fruits and vegetables.
The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.