How does free and reduced lunch work?

7/7/2016

Recently, we published an Issue Review, in which free and reduced-price lunches were an important measurement for understanding the socio-economic structure of Duval public schools. In the process, we received some questions about free and reduced lunches like, “Is this data from the state the same as what the district reports?”, “What makes students eligible for free and reduced lunch?”, and “Is free and reduced lunch rate the same as the poverty rate?” Some answers we knew, some we didn’t. Wondering why some information was so difficult to find, we dug deeper to create a brief description of free and reduced lunch and how it functions.

For many Duval county children and their families, free and reduced-price school meals are an important part of every school day. In fact, about half of the students in Duval County’s traditional public schools receive free or reduced-price meals. For some of those students, the free breakfast, lunch, and snacks available at their school might be the only food they can depend on that day. Additionally, research shows that students who participate in free meal programs get better nutrition than those who don’t. Yet despite its clear importance, information about free and reduced meals is hardly common knowledge.

To make matters worse, the details of how students qualify for free and reduced meals and how federal programs subsidize those meals are complex. Even less clear is how data on the number of students at each school who receive either free or reduced meals is collected and how it is reported. Information on these processes in Duval schools is difficult to find and, as such, remains a confusing topic for many parents and community members.

Many students in Duval and around the country would not eat a nutritious breakfast or lunch everyday without the resources provided by free and reduced school meals, but the general lack of understanding and awareness about these programs can prevent students from receiving these important benefits. Participation trends for students receiving free meals at schools are on the rise, in part due to greater awareness about the opportunity for free meals since the 2008 recession. In order to ensure that children in need are able to access free and reduced-price food options at school, we think everyone should better understand how and why these programs work.

Defining free and reduced lunch

In 1945, the Richard B. Russell National Lunch Act began the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) that today includes a number of specific programs, all with the aim of providing food in various ways to children who are most in need. The NSLP works by reimbursing individual schools for each meal they serve to students at free or reduced-price rates. Reduced-price meals can cost students no more than $0.40 for a lunch and no more than $0.30 for breakfast. In 2012, the NSLP served 31.6 million children free or reduced-price meals each day and has served over 224 billion lunches throughout its history as a program.

What is typically referred to as “free and reduced lunch” (FRL) is actually a number of initiatives under the NSLP that help provide free or less expensive food options for public school students including breakfast, lunch, milk, meals for summer school programs, and snacks for after-school programs.

Schools must follow the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans in order to be reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for meals. Guidelines include:

  • NSLP provides students with at least one third of Recommended Daily Allowance for key nutrients

  • NSLP meals are required to provide no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat

FRL eligibility

Students are enrolled in FRL programs by several means: application, Direct Certification, and Community Eligibility Provision. Receiving FRL through an application requires students and their families to fill out an application with family financial information. If they meet the criteria based on income and family size, they are eligible to receive either free or reduced-price meals. Any student whose family has a total pre-tax income that is 1.3 times or less than the annual poverty income is eligible for free meals, and any student whose family has a total pre-tax income between 1.3 and 1.85 times the annual poverty income is eligible for reduced-price meals. These income levels increase for each additional family member. See the table below for examples according to 2016-2017 FRL eligibility guidelines.

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Direct Certification is another mechanism by which a student may receive FRL. The purpose of the Direct Certification process is to prevent students and their families from having to redundantly fill out income and other information to apply for FRL when they have already done so to receive benefits from other federal programs.

Direct Certification automatically qualifies students enrolled in government assistance programs like Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to receive FRL. Students in foster care programs or who are considered homeless are also automatically qualified for FRL through Direct Certification.

If a school has 40 percent or more students qualifying for FRL via Direct Certification, that school becomes a Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) school. CEP schools provide free meals to all of their students without requiring any application. Florida is one of the 11 states that participate in the CEP program. If a school has less than 40 percent of its students qualified for FRL via Direct Certification, then that school cannot become a CEP school. Instead, students who wish to receive FRL and their families who do not already receive FRL through Direct Certification must fill out an FRL application.

Collecting data: How the percent of FRL recipients is calculated and why it's important

Here in Duval, the numbers of students at each school who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, as well as those who are not eligible for them, are collected each day by the district's Food Service Department. These numbers are updated nightly in the district’s Student Information Management System and are monitored for any potential errors. A snapshot of this data is then given to the state Department of Education a few times per year through planned, state-administered surveys to districts.

Because the number of students who receive FRL is an indicator of the economic status of the student population in a school, it is used by many agencies to make policy decisions, including Title I status. In order to track and report the percentage and number of students who receive FRL at the school, the state approximates the percentage of FRL students at CEP schools by multiplying the amount of students at the school who receive FRL via Direct Certification by 1.6. For example, for a school that has 45 percent FRL students by Direct Certification, the entire school is now eligible for FRL and the reported FRL rate would be 72 percent (45 percent times 1.6 is 72 percent).

At schools without CEP, students who qualify for FRL through Direct Certification are added to the percentage of students who receive FRL from application to produce the percentage of students reported as FRL. For example, for a school that has 33 percent FRL students from Direct Certification and 15 percent from application, the reported FRL rate would be 48 percent.

Click here for a list of CEP schools here in Duval County for 2016-2017.

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