Rural children who are eligible for the federal school lunch program participate at rates below their urban peers and are also less likely to receive free or reduced-price breakfast, according to a recent report.
The report by Jessica Carson at the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy found that nationwide, only 64 percent of eligible households participate in the National School Lunch Program, and only 52 percent participate in the School Breakfast Program. Participation in both programs is highest in urban households, with nearly 71 percent of eligible households participating in the lunch program and about 59 percent participating in breakfast. In rural households, those figures drop to only 63 percent participation in lunch, and 51 percent in breakfast. Participation also lags in suburban schools, where only 59 percent of eligible students participate in the lunch program.
Carson gave several potential reasons for the low participation rates, including a possible stigma associated with school meals, or a lack of appealing foods. Breakfast participation may be hampered by students who have long commutes and don’t have time to get a meal before going to class.
Although there is a lack of participation, research shows rural children have a need for free or affordable healthy foods. A 2014 report found that the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides funds for low-income families to purchase healthy foods, serves a higher percentage of rural families than urban ones. Research shows that rural children are more likely than their urban peers to suffer from a range of health issues, like obesity or diabetes, which has been partly attributed to a lack of healthy and affordable foods in rural areas. Summer food programs are especially scarce in rural areas, which has led some states to experiment with mobile meals and backpacks of food to ensure rural children eat when they are not in school.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.