Scrutiny of Federal School Lunch Program Would Mean Fewer Free Lunches, Better School Data

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the number of Americans without access to adequate food was at the highest level in 14 years, driven by the recession. As reported in the New York Times, children in more than 500,000 households faced “very low food security” last year, up from 323,000 the previous year.

One way the federal government attempts to ameliorate hunger is the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which spends $8 billion annually to provide free- or reduced-price lunches to over 30 million children. (A graph in USA Today shows the percentage of kids in each state who are eligible for free- or reduced-priced meals.)

However, a new article published today on the Education Next website, “Fraud in the Lunchroom,” by David Bass, warns that the federal school lunch program does not do a very good job of verifying that students whose families sign up for the program actually meet the eligibility requirements. The result is that a lot of ineligible kids are receiving free lunches.

While many people might not object to a policy that errs in the direction of generosity to hungry children, the article notes that having ineligible students on the free lunch list has a lot of other consequences.

For instance, Bass explains that the percentage of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches is the main criteria for the allocation of federal Title I funds to schools. State governments and school districts also distribute funds to schools according to the count of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches.

Also, when NAEP tracks the performance of low-income children over time, and when schools report on whether low-income students in a school make AYP, both are looking at students who are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches, says Bass.  Many outside researchers also rely on free- and reduced-price lunch eligibility as a proxy for poverty. In all of these cases, the results of analyses may be skewed if many students whose families are not truly poor are listed as eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches.

(NB: An earlier article in Ed Next, “The School Lunch Lobby,” looked at the history of the school lunch program.)

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