State Policy Levers to Increase School Meal Program Participation

K-12

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For over half of a century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has offered free and reduced-price meals to children from low-income households under the National School Lunch Program. In more recent years, the USDA has expanded services to include programs like school breakfast and summer meals for communities with higher rates of food insecurity.

Research shows school meal programs can improve student achievement and physical and mental health. Recently, the USDA proposed a new rule that would revise eligibility standards for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which can be used to automatically qualify children for school meal programs.

However, overall participation in the national School Lunch Program has decreased over the past seven years, though the federal government has made attempts to increase participation. For example, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires local school districts to directly certify at least 95% of children living in SNAP households to increase participation. Direct certification is a process by which students from families who participate in a federal, means-tested assistance program are automatically certified for school meal programs. A USDA analysis shows that 24 states did not achieve this requirement in 2016-17.

While the federal government allocates funding for school meal programs and enforces compliance with federal policy, state governments provide supplemental funds and exercise policy discretion as well. The following examples are policy levers states are employing in hopes of increasing overall participation rates in all school meal programs.

Universal School Meals

Since the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, local school districts with high rates of poverty can use the Community Eligibility Provision to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students. Additionally, schools may offer free meals through special provisions of the National School Lunch Act. Alongside these options, states have allowed specific universal meal programs, such as universal breakfast. Research indicates that universal meals increase participation in school meal programs.

Breakfast After the Bell

Currently, the number of students who participate in the NSLP is more than double the number of those who participate in the School Breakfast Program. To make the School Breakfast Program more convenient for students, some states offer Breakfast After the Bell in one of three ways: Students receive breakfast in a prepackaged portion, during their first class or after their first class. Research suggests that states with a Breakfast After the Bell policy have higher participation rates.

Competitive Food Policy

Students encounter food options other than what is offered through school meal programs, such as a la carte meals and vending machines. These competitive food options are typically unhealthy compared with the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, and their availability means students are less likely to choose National School Lunch and Breakfast options. States have sought to address this through competitive food policy, which can take the form of stricter nutrition standards for competitive foods or eliminating them outright. The rationale for these policies is to decrease social stigma associated with school meal programs and offer competing healthy food options instead of healthy versus unhealthy. Research of both policies finds they may increase school meal participation rates.

We frequently receive questions from policymakers on issues like these. A full response to a question on increasing student participation in school meal programs can be found here. If you have more questions about this or other education policy topics, please contact us.

Author profile
Policy researcher at Education Commission of the States | esyverson@ecs.org

As a policy researcher, Eric supports the policy team by tracking legislation and answering information requests. Prior to joining the Education Commission of the States, Eric worked in the policy and compliance department at the Denver Elections Division. He earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Kansas and will soon complete a master’s of public administration at the University of Colorado Denver.

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