K-12 Free & Reduced-Price Lunches Stabilizing and Adapting

by Brian Kennedy and Dr. Patrick Jones

The average cost difference between a full and reduced-price lunch is about $3.00. While this may not seem like much on the surface, for some students this could be the difference between going hungry or having proper nutrition for their studies. Especially in a time with school closures and where health is at the forefront of our thoughts, schools’ ability to provide meals to children has acted as a lifeline to many struggling during the crisis.

The cost of a school lunch in Spokane County is roughly $3.25 but about only two out of five students are paying that, due to the free and reduced-price lunch program. Understanding how many students and what their share of total enrollment provides a good measure for relative poverty. Captured in Indicator 2.5.5, the data show how that trend has been moving over the past twenty years.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is served in public and private schools throughout the United States. It is a program under the authority of the United States Department of Agriculture but administered at the state level by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). There were over 339 public school districts, private schools, charter schools, and tribal compact schools that were participating in the NSLP in the 2018-2019 school year. According to OSPI, although all students may participate, the income eligibility guidelines for school meals are intended to direct benefits to those children most in need. The guidelines are based on the federal income poverty levels (FPL) and revised annually. Eligibility for free lunches is at 130% or less of the FPL and reduced-price eligibility lies between 130 and 185% of the FPL.

Stating the income thresholds of 130% and 185% of the FPL can seem abstract, but according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the poverty level for a family of four was $25,750 in 2019. Thus, for such a household, qualifying households for free and reduced-price lunches, would earn below $33,475 and $47,638, respectively.

In Spokane County, the 2019-2020 school year showed that 45.7% of all students were enrolled in the NSLP, just 2.4 percentage points higher than the state average at 43.3%. However, there is a bit of variation across the school districts in the county. Among the two largest school districts, Spokane Schools sits considerably higher, at 56.7%, the highest among the county,  yet the share of second-largest district, Central Valley,  is 35.2%, among the lowest in the county.

While over the last twenty years the overall share in the county has increased by ten percentage points, the trend seems to have stabilized. Over the last decade the share has increased by only one percentage point. Even within the county there hasn’t been a lot of variation among the school districts, with each showing roughly the same trend of growth over the last ten years, give or take just a few percentage points.

In the 2019-2020 school year there are 34,890 students enrolled in either the free or reduced-price lunch program within the county. While a vast majority of students in the NSLP, 82% or 28,442 students, qualify for free lunch this share hasn’t always been so defined. The share of student qualifying to free lunch as opposed to reduced-price lunches has consistently been increasing. Going back twenty years, 69% of students in the NSLP qualified for free lunch and just ten years ago that number climbed ten percentage points to 79%. Now, and for the last few years that number has hovered around 82%.

Despite all the uncertainty surrounding school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across the county have stepped in to provide some certainty around child nutrition. Spokane SD has set up grab and go meals with 24 distribution sites throughout the city, Central Valley SD has done the same in the valley with 15 different locations. In most cases they are offering meals between 11am and 1pm (varying among locations) to any children under the age of 18, whether they are enrolled in that school district or not. Additionally, school buses, no longer taking students to and from school, are providing mobile meals to areas in the community with the highest need. More information for Spokane SD can be found here. Distribution sites and available programs can all be found on the school district web page (Cheney, Deer Park, East Valley, Freeman, Mead, Medical Lake, Nine Mile Falls, and West Valley).

So, while it is true that compared to twenty years ago, throughout the county the share of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches has increased significantly, that share has shown signs of stabilizing with no substantial growth in the last ten years. This is an important trend to follow as it is a proxy measure for relative poverty. More importantly the growth is showing that more children are being positively impacted by receiving basic human needs and nutrition for future development.