Economic Conditions Affect the Share of Children Receiving Free or Reduced-Price School Lunches

By Hanson, Kenneth; Oliveira, Victor | Amber Waves, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Economic Conditions Affect the Share of Children Receiving Free or Reduced-Price School Lunches


Hanson, Kenneth, Oliveira, Victor, Amber Waves


USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) is recognized as one of the Nation's primary countercyclical assistance programs, expanding during economic downturns and contracting during periods of economic growth. However, there has been little analysis of the effect of the economy on other food and nutrition assistance programs. A recent ERS study examined USDA's National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and other USDA nutrition assistance programs and found that they also respond to the changing needs of households during periods of economic downturn and growth.

NSLP is the Nation's second-largest food and nutrition assistance program. In fiscal year 2012, expenditures totaled $11.6 billion and an average 31.6 million children participated in the program on a typical day of school. The program subsidizes meals in participating schools, which must offer nutritious meals to any student at full price and to income-eligible students for free or at a reduced price. Total participation in NSLP is closely linked to school enrollment and does not vary with economic conditions. Since the mid-1980s, total participation has grown steadily at an annual average rate of 1.1 percent per year, following the growth in school enrollment.

While total participation in NSLP is independent of economic conditions, the share of participants receiving free or reduced-price meals is responsive to the economy, rising with the unemployment rate during downturns. …

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