Sixty-Eight Percent of U.S. Enrolled School Children Qualify for Free or Reduced-Rate Lunches

Source: US National Archives. Series: World War II Posters, compiled 1942-1945.

Earlier this month, the USDA came out with its annual report on government food assistance programs, which now make up 70 percent of all USDA spending.

What was formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, now called SNAP, accounts for 73 percent of the program. An average of 46.6 million people per month, or about 15 percent of the U.S. population, participated in the SNAP program last year with benefits averaging $133 per person per month and totaling $78.3 billion in federal spending. Since the financial crisis of ’08, the number of participants has really ticked upward, given that this is a “counter-cyclical” program.

Among the top five funded food programs, two are administered through the nation’s schools, the National School Lunch Program, and the School Breakfast Program.

National School Lunch Program

Last year, 31.6 million children participated in the school lunch program, for a total expenditure of $11.6 billion. Fifty-nine percent of children who participated in the U.S. school lunch program last year qualified for free lunches, 68 percent qualified for either free or a reduced meal price, and 32 percent paid full price. Over five billion meals were served. To qualify for free meals, the children must come from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. To qualify for reduced-price meals, families must fall between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty guidelines.

School Breakfast Program

An average of 12.8 million children participated in the school breakfast program last year for a total expenditure of $3.3 billion. Seventy-six percent of all breakfasts served were provided free to students, 8 percent were provided at a reduced price, and 16 percent were full price. The School Breakfast Program is the fastest growing of all the major food assistance programs.

According to the report, there were 43,905,000 children enrolled in school in 2012 in the U.S.

There are currently proposals in the House to add weekends and holidays to the school lunch program, and to expand it in childcare centers. Some individual states are considering expanding the free meals to all students.

There is an ongoing dispute, too, about previously set calorie cap guidelines by the USDA which were intended to keep students healthier and fight childhood obesity, but now some in Congress consider those guidelines to be a hindrance because they leave children hungry.

The program’s guidelines used improved nutrition standards in 2012 with more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and less salt and fat.

A common question asked is why aren’t food assistance and farm programs separated? Why are they together? One answer is that passing legislation is made easier for both programs, since it creates unlikely allies in Congress.



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