The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a core component of the social safety net for low-income children in the United States. The proposals implemented through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 have the potential to reduce the effectiveness of the NSLP in improving the well-being of low-income children.
The NSLP operates in over 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools across the United States and, in the process, has the potential to reach almost all children attending school. In 2012, approximately 30 million students participated in NSLP and over 70 percent of these participants received free or reduced price meals. A child is eligible for a free meal if his or her family income is less than 130 percent of the poverty line (for a family of four in 2013 this was $30,615) while a child is eligible for a reduced price meal (40 cents) if his or her family income between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty line. In some cases, schools in high-poverty areas can provide free school lunches to all children without the requirement of family incomes. The total cost of the program to the federal government was about $11 billion in 2012.
The benefits associated with receiving a school meal are substantial – the average benefit for a child receiving the meals is about $60 per month. In light of the size of the program for the government and for children, research has examined whether or not the program is successful with a particular emphasis on whether it has improved the well-being of children in low-income households. Recent work has concentrated on this over two dimensions. First, children who receive free or reduced-price lunches are between 2.3 and 9.0 percentage points less likely to be food insecure than eligible non-participants. While this is not as large as the effect of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), this is a large effect. Along with this direct evidence there is indirect evidence that NSLP leads to reductions in food insecurity insofar as there are increases in food insecurity over the summertime when most children are not in school. Second, research has examined the impact of NSLP participation on childhood obesity. This research is especially instructive insofar as at least some people believe that the NSLP is associated with increases in childhood obesity. Research has found, though, that low-income participants in the NSLP are no more likely than eligible non-participants to be obese or overweight.
Despite the proven benefits associated with NSLP participation, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 called for a total restructuring of the standards of the program. This includes among other things, caloric downsizing; major decreases in allotted sodium, trans fats, and saturated fats per meal; offering of fruits and vegetables daily as two separate meal components; all grains must contain at least 50 percent whole grain; the establishment of daily minimum and maximum ranges of grains and meats/meat substitutes; stipulating that milk must be fat-free (flavored and unflavored) or 1 percent reduced fat (unflavored) (more information available here). In addition, standards for snacks and foods distributed outside of the lunch line have also been implemented.
On the surface, this restructuring of the NSLP seems like a good idea. After all, who is against healthier meals? However, concerns exist regarding what might happen to childhood hunger in the United States due to these new rules. The following are three probable consequences of the policy changes for consideration. First, schools are faced with higher expenses due to these requirements and declines in participation among students and, hence, fewer meals sold. In response, some schools have chosen to opt out of the NSLP so they do not need to abide by the new rules. In the process of doing so, NSLP-eligible children who attend these schools will no longer have access to free or reduced-price meals, putting them at heightened risk of food insecurity. Second, children may be less likely to eat what is served through the revised guidelines and, hence, a decline in the receipt of school meals. This is consistent with a study that showed a marked decline in milk consumption after flavored milk was removed from some school meal programs due to the perceived negative characteristics of flavored milk and, as a consequence, the health benefits associated with milk consumption were not realized. Something similar is likely to occur when “healthier meals” are introduced. Third, for many students, the main meal they eat might be lunch due to limited food availability at home. Children with sufficient food at home can make up for the reductions in calories of the new school lunches but this is not an option for many low-income children. As a consequence, these children will be more likely to be food insecure and/or put greater demands on their family’s already limited food budget.
There are some in the United States who may be willing to accept more hunger among children if this were paired with a decline in childhood obesity. However, a decline in obesity may not occur due to these “healthier meals” for two main reasons. First, there is evidence that persons will compensate for the loss of calories in one meal with additional calories in other meals. So, for children in households with sufficient resources, the reduction in calories in school meals may be replaced with calories in other meals. Second, as noted above, many schools have reported declines in participation in the NSLP. If these children are being given even healthier meals through sack lunches or through consumption of foods at local retail food outlets, this may then mean these children would not be at higher risk of obesity. But, if their sack lunches or alternative outside-school meal options are not healthier, they could be at higher risk of obesity.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act of 2010 does appear to be a well-intentioned policy change. It is worthwhile, though, for policymakers and program administrators to continue to evaluate the negative consequences associated with this change, especially since these consequences are most likely to be borne by children in low-income families.
Acknowledgments: The author acknowledges the excellent assistance of Stephanie Boas and financial support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Hatch Project Number 470-331.