Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

School Lunch Program Participation

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

School Lunch Program Participation

Article excerpt

School Lunch Program Participation

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is the largest of the Child Nutrition Programs administered by the United States Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, both in terms of funding and number of children served. An average of 27 million children per day were served lunches through the NSLP in 1979. Following program changes and substantial funding reductions embodied in the 1980 and 1981 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Acts (OBRAs), the number of lunches served dropped to 25.8 in 1981 and 22.9 million in 1982 (United States General Accounting Office 1984). The reductions in participation occurred despite the onset of a recession, which should have signaled an increase in participation. While such decreases in school lunch participation are of concern to hunger groups and legislators, the extent to which the OBRA legislation contributed to the participation decline is unknown. Closing that information gap is the specific focus of this research. More broadly, the objective is to determine what factors affect school lunch program participation and thereby inform future public policy.

The problem of obtaining accurate estimates of the determinants of NSLP participation has two dimensions. First, the effects of demographic and economic changes must be isolated to identify correctly the effects of specific program changes on participation. During the period under study, 1979-1981, school enrollments declined in many areas of the country and, as already noted, the economy headed into a deep recession. Second, required information regarding the number of students eligible for subsidized school lunches is not directly reported and must be estimated. The most suitable data for determining eligibility and for analyzing program participation are household-, student-, and school-level data. Unfortunately, high collection costs preclude frequent acquisition of such data.

The two-dimensional problem of obtaining an accurate picture of school lunch program participation is addressed by developing and implementing a two-stage model of county-level program participation in New York State. The data for New York counties are reasonably accessible and similar data should be available in other states. In the crucial first stage of the model, pre- and post-OBRA eligible populations are predicted by estimating poverty rates for each county. The second stage utilizes those predictions in an empirical model of county program participation designed to distinguish the effects of legislative changes from those associated with demographic, economic, and behavioral changes. Background material on the school lunch program and the OBRA legislative changes are presented first, followed by the empirical methodology, results, and conclusions, in turn.

THE NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM

The National School Lunch Program was established in 1946 with the passage of the National School Lunch Act. The primary objective of the legislation was to assist in providing adequate nutrition for the nation's school children. The Act established an entitlement to Federally subsidized nutritious lunches for all school children. The subsidies were considered an investment in the health, education, and future productivity of children throughout the nation. The 1946 Act also included funds for purchasing and distributing surplus farm commodities to schools. By incorporating this politically acceptable means for disposing of government-purchased agricultural surpluses, the appeal of the legislation was broadened.

The operation and funding of the lunch program evolved over the years. Currently, three different categories of lunches are served: free, reduced-price, and full-price. Lower-income students apply and eligibility is determined for the free or reduced-price lunches according to family size and income. All students are eligible for a full-price lunch. …

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