Large increase in California children qualifying for school lunch programs

Photo by Bob Nichols

Photo by Bob Nichols

The number of California students participating in the federal free or reduced-price school meal program increased by 10 percent, or a little more than 300,000 students, in just three years at least in part as a fallout from the Great Recession.

“With the economic decline and so many families struggling to make ends meet, they are turning to school meals as another resource to make sure their kids get the nutrition they need,” said Tia Shimada, a nutrition policy advocate for California Food Policy Advocates.

She said the increased number of students in school lunch programs is mirrored by the growing participation in food banks and other emergency food services.

According to the latest figures from the California Department of Education, nearly 3.5 million students enrolled in the program in the last school year, or almost 57 percent of all children enrolled in California’s K-12 schools.

That’s up from about 3.1 million children in the 2007-08 school year, or just over 50%, when the recession officially started.

Education Department officials expect the numbers to grow even higher when figures for the current 2011-12 school year are released this spring.

California students now account for about 1 in 6 of all children participating in the school lunch program nationally.

This trend is a national one, according to an analysis by the New York Times of data from the Department of Agriculture, which administers the meals program. The Times found that the number of students receiving subsidized lunches rose nationally from 18 million in 2006–07 to 21 million in the last school year—an increase of 17%.

Food advocates acknowledge that some of the growth is because school districts have more aggressively sought to enroll eligible children, or are now required to automatically enroll students whose families are in the CalFresh program, formerly known as Food Stamps, and in CalWORKS, the state’s welfare program.

In 2006–07, the automatic enrollment program, known as “direct certification,” was just beginning to be phased in around the country. Until then, parents had to fill out forms to enroll their children and hand them in at their school.

“The good news is that districts are participating in this program,” said Kevin Conway, a project director of Mathematica Policy Research, who co-authored a report to Congress about the direct certification program. “The bad news is that caseloads are expanding.”

“The increase is very startling,” he added, referring to the numbers of children that are automatically certified for the school meal program. “The main driver obviously is the economy.”

Amy Carson, program analyst for the school nutrition programs at the California Department of Education, said the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals because their families are in CalFresh continues to grow. “I see a huge growth this school year,” she said.

According to federal regulations, if schools have a high proportion of low-income children (75 percent or more, according to the Food Research and Action Center), they can apply to be relieved of a range of administrative burdens and thus reduce costs. But they must serve school lunch meals to all the children in a school (the so-called “Provision 2 of “Special Assistance Alternatives’) even though they are only reimbursed for the cost of meals for low-income students, not all students.

According to the Mathematica report, an estimated 350,000 California students are in Provision 2 schools, and all are now enrolled in the school lunch program. In 14 smaller school districts, with a total enrollment of 17,000 students, all the children are participating in the school lunch program, according to the California Department of Education.

However schools are managing to boost participation, said the California Food Policy Advocate’s Shimada, she welcomes their efforts.

“It’s great they are doing it,” she said. “These are federally-funded benefits that kids are eligible for.”

NOTE: This post includes additional information on Provision 2 of the  National School Lunch Program compared with the original version.

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