Published Online: November 9, 2009
Published in Print: November 11, 2009, as Schools Found Doing Better Job Flagging Pupils for Meals Help

Schools Found Doing Better Job Flagging Pupils for Meals Help

Researchers report half of U.S. children will be on food stamps at some point

Schools are doing a better job of identifying students who are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, but some states are much better than others, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says in a report to Congress.

Also last week, researchers reported that nearly half of all U.S. children, and 90 percent of black youngsters, will be on food stamps at some point during childhood. Fallout from the recession could push those numbers even higher, they said.

In 2008-09, 78 percent of schools identified students eligible for subsidized lunches by using government records of which households already received aid such as food stamps. Use of that “direct certification” method—considered the most efficient way to enroll schoolchildren in subsidized-lunch programs—was up 11 percentage points from the previous year, according to the USDA report.

Direct certification helps eliminate the lengthy application process for free meals. The school lunch program provides low-cost or free lunches to 31 million children each school day.

States and School Meals

The percentage of students in each state who are directly certified for subsidized school meals using government records of households that receive aid varies widely, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.

Despite the overall improvement, the report shows a wide disparity in performance from state to state. The top four states—Alaska, Delaware, New York, and Tennessee—all directly enrolled more than 90 percent of students from households that received food stamps.

The bottom four—the District of Columbia, Idaho, Missouri, and New Hampshire—directly enrolled 50 percent or fewer students whose families received food stamps.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the report shows areas where states can improve.

Kevin Concannon, the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, said the report “will help us share promising lessons from the most successful states.”

Schools that lag in efficiently enrolling children in their lunch programs are disproportionately smaller and rural, the report concludes.

Students and Food Stamps

The estimate of children on food stamps, meanwhile, comes from an analysis of 30 years of national data, and it bolsters other recent evidence on the pervasiveness of youngsters at economic risk. It suggests that almost everyone knows a family who has received food stamps, or will in the future, said lead author Mark Rank, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Your neighbor may be using some of these programs, but it’s not the kind of thing people want to talk about,” Mr. Rank said.

The analysis was released Nov. 2 in the November issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The authors say it’s a medical issue pediatricians need to be aware of because children on food stamps are at risk for malnutrition and other ills linked with poverty.

“This is a real danger sign that we as a society need to do a lot more to protect children,” Mr. Rank said.

Your neighbor may be using some of these programs, but it’s not the kind of thing people want to talk about.
Mark Rank
Researcher, Washington University in St. Louis

Food stamps are an Agriculture Department program for low-income individuals and families, covering most foods, although not prepared hot foods or alcohol. For a family of four to be eligible, its annual take-home pay can’t exceed about $22,000.

According to a USDA report released last month, 28.4 million Americans received food stamps in an average month in 2008, and about half were younger than age 18. The average monthly benefit per household totaled $222.

Mr. Rank and Cornell University sociologist Thomas Hirschl studied data from a nationally representative survey of 4,800 American households interviewed annually from 1968 through 1997 by the University of Michigan. About 18,000 adults and children were involved.

Overall, about 49 percent of all children were on food stamps at some point by the age of 20, the analysis of the survey data found. That included 90 percent of black children and 37 percent of whites. The analysis didn’t include other racial or ethnic groups.

The time span included typical economic ups and downs, including the recession of the early 1980s. That means similar proportions of children now and in the future will live in families receiving food stamps, although economic turmoil may increase the numbers, Mr. Rank said.

An editorial in the medical journal agreed.

“The current recession is likely to generate for children in the United States the greatest level of material deprivation that we will see in our professional lifetimes,” Stanford University pediatrician Dr. Paul Wise wrote.

Dr. Wise said the Archives study estimate is believable. “I find it terribly sad, but not surprising,” he said.

James Weill, the president of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the analysis underscores that “there are just very large numbers of people who rely on this program for a month, six months, a year.”

“What I hope comes out of this study is an understanding that food stamp beneficiaries aren’t them—they’re us,” Mr. Weill said.

The analysis is in line with other recent research suggesting that more than 40 percent of U.S. children will live in poverty or near-poverty by age 17.

Vol. 29, Issue 11, Page 6

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