BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Participation in paid school meals fell this year, but there’s no evidence that prices played a role. Over the past three years, about 45 percent of children in the paid meal category ate a school lunch each day. A participation decline was widely expected because important new nutrition requirements kicked in this year, which may make lunches less appealing to some children until they adjust to the changes. In October 2012 (the most recent month for which this analysis is possible), shortly after the menu changes took effect, paid meal participation fell to 40 percent.
No research is yet available to sort out the extent to which menu changes are driving the decline versus the very modest price increases that result from the paid lunch equity provision, but it’s worth noting that school lunch participation has also fallen in many schools that serve all meals free (so prices are not a factor).
- The Agriculture Department (USDA) has already created an exemption. USDA plans to study the impact of paid lunch equity over the next year. Meanwhile, it created an exemption for the coming school year, which makes the Stivers-Fudge bill unnecessary. School districts operating exemplary programs that have substantial budget surpluses will not be subject to the paid lunch equity requirements.
- Contrary to critics’ predictions, the requirement hasn’t undermined access to the school meals programs. Critics have argued that large numbers of schools would drop out of the National School Lunch Program rather than charge higher prices or make non-federal contributions to it. To the contrary, the number of schools offering lunch programs has basically held steady, and more children attend these schools and have access to the lunch program now than at any time in the last decade (see charts).