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How a Big Federal Spending Package Could Affect School Meals and Student Poverty Counts

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 23, 2021 6 min read
Food service assistant Brenda Bartee, rear, gives students breakfast, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, during the first day of school at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla.
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There’s momentum in Congress to make it easier for more students to get free, federally supported school meals. But that change, if enacted through a legislative package from Democrats called the Build Back Better Act, could have repercussions for how educators, policymakers, and others measure and respond to student poverty.

The idea of giving more children access to free meals at school has influential backing among Capitol Hill Democrats, the Biden administration, and others. Candidates in the 2020 presidential campaign condemned the practice known as “lunch shaming” in which schools refuse to give students hot meals due to unpaid meal debt. And the pandemic has led to a major expansion in free school meals that some believe should become permanent.

Yet the potential shift highlights how different policy trends can overlap, as well as long-standing concerns that school meal data is a fundamentally flawed proxy for poverty.

If the changes become law, they would almost certainly lead to fewer schools collecting data from families about which students are eligible for meal subsidies, a metric that’s commonly used to analyze and discuss poverty in schools. That shift could further complicate debates and data about disadvantaged students.

At the same time, officials have begun to move away from relying exclusively or heavily on this school meal data in recent years, so the changes being contemplated on Capitol Hill could accelerate that trend rather than trigger significant disruptions.

While school meal data has been useful up to a point, it’s time to use more-nuanced measures of student poverty that take into account factors far beyond a student’s eligibility for subsidized meals, said Ivy Smith Morgan, the associate director of P-12 analytics at the Education Trust.

“We just need to start thinking about them separately,” she said.

Democrats push to expand access to free school meals

The child nutrition changes are included in a $3.5 trillion spending deal over 10 years that would significantly alter the federal government’s involvement in the economy and society. The Build Back Better Act, which also includes money for school infrastructure, still faces obstacles before it reaches President Joe Biden’s desk.

Under current law, a school or clusters of schools can provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students if 40 percent of them are in families that already participate in other means-tested programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as SNAP). This provision, known as community eligibility, means districts don’t have to collect data from individual families when determining which students qualify for meal subsidies, a process that’s raised concerns about people being stigmatized. In 2019, 52 percent of U.S. students were eligible for free and reduced-price school meals, recent federal data show.

The section of the Build Back Better Act approved by the House education committee in early September would lower that threshold for community eligibility to 25 percent. It would also simply give states the option of authorizing free breakfasts and lunches for all their students through community eligibility. Both provisions would last through June 2030. These and other changes affecting child nutrition in the bill account for $35 billion in the legislation.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, said in a Sept. 9 statement that the legislation would expand access to free meals for 9 million students while also reducing paperwork for education officials. Education and nutrition groups also backed the bill’s provisions—the Food Research and Action Center said the bill would help students “overcome the educational, health, and economic impacts of the pandemic.”

However, conservatives have said school meal rules are already too lenient and that the program wastes significant taxpayer money. Republican lawmakers have attempted to tighten restrictions on participation.

‘Error-prone, blunt indicators of poverty’

Free and reduced-price meal statistics are used by policymakers, researchers, and others in a variety of ways.

Many states rely on data from free and reduced-price meals for things like targeting aid to disadvantaged students in their funding formulas. The data can also be used by states for reporting and accountability under federal Title I programs for disadvantaged students.

But concerns about community eligibility’s impact on the value of school meal data as an indicator of student poverty arose when the policy was instituted nationwide in 2014. (The U.S. Department of Education published guidance in 2015 intended to address the issue.)

One such concern: School districts using community eligibility to provide free meals to all students might actually have lower shares of students below the federal poverty line than similar or nearby districts.

Three University of Missouri researchers, in a May 2021 working paper recently highlighted by Education Week, stated bluntly that free and reduced-price meal designations are “error-prone, blunt indicators of poverty and obscure wide variation in income.”

States have recently reconsidered their methods

As such concerns have persisted in recent years, state and local officials have been reviewing and revising their approaches to measuring student poverty and needs in recent years.

In a 2019 report, the Urban Institute highlighted states that have begun using student participation in programs like Medicaid, SNAP, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as substitutes for free and reduced-price meal data in certain instances.

Massachusetts, for example, uses individual student participation in an approved list of benefits programs to measure poverty, the institute noted. And New Mexico recently instituted a new index to direct more money to districts with concentrated levels of poverty.

Krista Ruffini, an assistant professor at Georgetown University who studies education policy and economics, noted that the Build Back Better Act’s changes would likely affect individual schools and districts more than states.

“We’ve already seen a shift away from relying on [free and reduced-price meal] forms as a measure of student poverty as [community eligibility] has become more common, especially at the state level,” Ruffini wrote in an email.

Different programs have different eligibility thresholds, which means switching to new metrics might change the amount of funding for students from low-income backgrounds. The Urban Institute highlighted such a concern recently in Georgia, and notes that some states have “hold harmless” provisions when their funding formulas change.

A House education committee aide said lawmakers understand concerns about community eligibility and school meal data. But the aide also pointed to a fact sheet from the Education Department from January about data sources for disadvantaged students that schools could use amid a dramatic expansion of free school meals during the pandemic. That expansion has relied on federal waivers from traditional school meal rules.

“We can both help feed hungry children and appropriately allocate Title I funds,” the aide said.

In general, it’s helpful for officials to collect and consider a broad range of factors when considering students’ needs, and focus less on binary measures, like whether a student qualifies for free or reduced-price meals, that may not fully capture students’ needs and backgrounds, Morgan of the Education Trust said.

“I do not think this is an impending crisis. I think we understand the consequences,” she said of the changes made by the Build Back Better Act. “I actually think [states] can figure it out.”

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