Equity & Diversity

Report Examines Matching Free-Meal Eligibility to Geographic Cost Differences

By Evie Blad — August 07, 2014 2 min read
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The federal poverty threshold—used to dictate which students qualify for free and reduced-price school meals—is the same in all of the contiguous United States, from Wichita, Kan., to New York City. And that’s true despite drastic variations in cost-of-living between some areas that are fueled by wide differences in prices for housing, energy, and gasoline.

Children with family incomes up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line qualify for free meals. The federal poverty level for a family of four is currently $23,850 in household income. While that’s not a lot of money in any part of the country, it can seem like an especially low threshold in some high-cost-of-living areas, like major cities, for example. So what would happen if the U.S. Department of Agriculture made its eligible income levels and reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals sensitive to regional cost differences? A report released today by the U.S. Government Accountability Office explores that question, while not making any specific recommendations. From the report:

There are a number of measures by which income thresholds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) school meal programs could be adjusted to account for geographic differences in the cost of living; doing so would likely lead to shifts in eligibility and program costs. For example, the Supplemental Poverty Measure or Regional Price Parities could be used to adjust for geographic price differences; each could result in fewer children qualifying for assistance in the South and Midwest and more children qualifying in the Northeast (see figure below). In general, the effects of any such cost-of-living adjustment are difficult to predict and would vary depending on their implementation, such as whether they were applied statewide or at the sub-state level, or whether children were kept from losing eligibility. Overall program costs could increase if more children participated.

In short, using two commonly accepted regionally sensitive eligibility measures would lead to fewer students eligible in most states, with a few select high-cost areas seeing more eligible students.

The study examines two measures—Regional Price Parities, a calculation by the Bureau of Economic Analysis that uses price data on things like housing to calculate geographic cost-of-living differences; and the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which calculates housing costs at the level of a metropolitan statistical area and includes the cost necessary for “a household to purchase basic food, clothing, shelter, and utilities and an additional small amount for other needs.” From the report:

If adjustments were made at the sub-state level, in general, more children would become eligible in metropolitan and other densely populated areas, as these areas tend to have a higher cost of living. Meanwhile, fewer children would be eligible in areas with a lower cost of living, such as nonmetropolitan areas and small cities. In some cases, the cost-of-living differences within states are greater than the cost-of-living differences between states. For example, RPP data indicate that the difference in price levels between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas in New York is greater than the overall difference between New York and Connecticut.

Here are two maps from the report that show the effects of using the measures to determine eligibility.

The report points to other levers states and districts can pull to help students with low family incomes that aren’t quite low enough to qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

For example, the new community eligibility option, available nationwide this year, will allow qualifying high-poverty schools to offer free meals to all students, even those whose family incomes are slightly too high to qualify for free or reduced-price meals in a traditional manner.

It should be noted that switching meal eligibility criteria would have all sorts of other effects on schools. Schools use rates of free and reduced lunch qualifiers to qualify for and distribute federal funding, including Title I.

The report also examines regional differences in the cost of preparing school meals to determine if regionally sensitive reimbursements would be appropriate. The existing data on regional cost differences don’t fully account for differences between districts, such as labor costs and purchasing power, it says.

Read the full report for a more detailed breakdown of the data.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.