ERS Charts of Note

Subscribe to get highlights from our current and past research, Monday through Friday, or see our privacy policy.
See also: Editor’s Pick 2017: Best of Charts of Note gallery.

Reset

In the past decade, participation in USDA’s School Breakfast Program has grown by more than 5 million

Monday, November 6, 2017

USDA’s School Breakfast Program makes healthy breakfasts available to all students in participating schools, with children from low-income households receiving the meals for free or at a reduced price. The program has grown considerably in the past 11 years, with participation increasing from 9.4 million children on a typical school day in fiscal 2005 to 14.6 million in fiscal 2016, an increase of 5.2 million children daily. Most of that growth in participation has been among students qualified to receive free breakfasts. Free breakfast participation rose from 6.8 million children in fiscal 2005 to 11.5 million in fiscal 2016, an increase of 4.7 million children. In fiscal 2016, 79 percent of breakfasts served were free, 6 percent were provided at a reduced price, and 15 percent were full price. Federal spending for the program totaled $4.2 billion in fiscal 2016—an increase of 7 percent over fiscal 2015. The data for this chart are from the Child Nutrition Programs topic page on the ERS Web site, updated October 2017.

In 2016, 73 percent of USDA school lunches were free or reduced price

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

On a typical school day in fiscal 2016, 30.4 million children participated in USDA’s National School Lunch Program and 73 percent of them received the meals for free or at a reduced price. The number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches has grown from 18.5 million in 2008 to 22.1 million in 2016. Some of this increase may be attributable to the 2007-09 recession and the slow recovery that followed. Declining incomes likely led more families to qualify and/or apply for free or reduced-price lunches. In addition, since 2014, the Community Eligibility Provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has made it possible for more schools to offer free meals to all their students. Between 2008 and 2011, the increase in free and reduced price participation more than offset the decline in full-price participation, with total participation increasing from 31.0 million to 31.8 million children daily. After 2011, however, declining full-price participation resulted in total daily participation falling. This chart appears in the Child Nutrition Programs topic page on the ERS Web site, updated on October 2, 2017.

Over 80 percent of food-insecure households with school-age children receive free or reduced-price school lunches

Monday, August 21, 2017

As summer comes to a close, kids head back to school. For many low-income children and teens, returning to school also means returning to free or reduced-price lunches provided through USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP). In September 2016, 21.9 million children received free or reduced-price school lunches, including children who lived in food-insecure households—households that at times have difficulty putting enough food on the table due to limited resources. In 2015, 13.1 million children lived in food-insecure households. In 2014 and 2015, 84 percent of low-income food-insecure households with school-age children accessed free or reduced-price lunches through the NSLP, either in combination with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (46 percent), which provide food and nutrition assistance to low-income Americans, or alone (38 percent). An estimated 6 percent of low-income food-insecure households with school-age children received SNAP, but not free or reduced-price school lunches, and 10 percent did not participate in either program. This chart appears in "USDA’s National School Lunch Program Reduces Food Insecurity" in the August 2017 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Forty-three percent of households with food-insecure children in 2014-15 had incomes below the Federal poverty line

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

In 2014-15, 17.9 percent of U.S. households with children under the age of 18 were food insecure—they had difficulty putting enough food on the table for all their members. In about half of these households (8.6 percent of U.S. households with children), children were food insecure and experienced reduced dietary quality and food intake. Food insecurity is closely related to income as poor households are more likely to experience food insecurity. In 2014-15, 43 percent of households with food-insecure children had incomes below the Federal poverty line and one-quarter had incomes between the poverty line and 185 percent of the poverty line. Households with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line may be eligible for programs like the free- or reduced-price National School Lunch Program. An ERS review of scientific research studies shows that participation in USDA school meals reduces food insecurity. However, about 19 percent of households with food-insecure children in 2014-15 may have been ineligible for such assistance. The data for this chart appear in the ERS report, Children’s Food Security and USDA Child Nutrition Programs, released on June 20, 2017.

Child food insecurity more common in households with school-age children than with children only under age 5

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Each year a portion of American households are food insecure—they struggle to afford enough food for all household members. In some of these households, children—along with adults—experience reductions in dietary quality and food intake. In 2014-15, children were food insecure in 8.6 percent of all U.S. households with children. Households that only included young children (0 to 4 years) had a lower prevalence of child food insecurity (4.3 percent) than those that included school-age children (8.1 to 10.3 percent depending on the age of the oldest child in the household). USDA child nutrition programs, such as WIC, the National School Lunch Program, and the School Breakfast Program, can be important sources of nutritious foods and meals for food-insecure children. A review of a number of scientific research studies shows that participation in USDA school meals reduces food insecurity and has positive effects on diet for those that do experience food insecurity. The data for this chart appear in the ERS report, Children’s Food Security and USDA Child Nutrition Programs, released on June 20, 2017.

More children participated in USDA’s Summer Food Service Program in 2016

Thursday, June 8, 2017

In 2016, USDA’s Summer Food Service Program provided meals to 2.8 million children on an average operating day in July, the peak month for program operations. This was a 7.7-percent increase from 2015’s July participation. Meals are served at a wide variety of USDA-approved sites including schools, camps, parks, playgrounds, housing projects, community centers, churches, and other public sites where children gather in the summer. Sites are eligible to offer free USDA-funded meals and snacks if the sites operate in areas where at least half of the children come from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the Federal poverty level, or if more than half of the children served by the site meet this income criterion. In 2016, 47,981 sites offered summer meals, about 400 more than in 2015. Many low-income children also obtain free meals while school is out through the Seamless Summer Option of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. This chart is from the Child Nutrition Programs: Summer Food Service Program topic page on the ERS Web site, updated May 22, 2017.

Schools in the Northeast are more likely to serve local foods every school day

Monday, May 22, 2017

In 2013, ERS and USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service collaborated on the first Farm to School Census to collect data from public school districts on the use of local foods in school meals. The information collected included how frequently local foods were served and which ones were served more often. Milk, fruit, and vegetables were the most frequently served locally-produced foods. ERS researchers found that, after controlling for other characteristics that vary across school districts, districts in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic were 28 and 17 percentage points, respectively, more likely to serve local foods daily than those in the Southwest. School districts in cities were 11 percentage points more likely to serve local foods daily than districts in rural areas, and districts with 5,000 or more students were 9 percentage points more likely to do so than districts with less than 5,000 students. This chart appears in "School Districts in the Northeast Are Most Likely to Serve Local Foods on a Daily Basis" in the May 2017 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

A growing number of school meals are served at no charge to students

Thursday, September 1, 2016

On a typical school day in fiscal 2015, 30 million children participated in USDA?s National School Lunch Program and 14 million in the School Breakfast Program. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of Federal poverty guidelines are eligible for free meals, and those from families with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of poverty guidelines are eligible for reduced-price meals. Children from families with incomes over 185 percent of poverty guidelines pay full price, although their meals are subsidized to a small extent. Over twice as many meals were served in the National School Lunch Program (5 billion) as in the School Breakfast Program (2.3 billion) in FY 2015. About 80 percent of breakfasts were served free compared with 65 percent of lunches. Another 6 percent of breakfasts and 7 percent of lunches were served at a reduced price. The share of free meals served in both programs has increased since 2005. Increases in the poverty rate for children and the recent Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools in areas with high poverty rates to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students, may be among the factors that contributed to the increase in children receiving free school meals. The 2015 data for this chart are from the ERS report, The Food Assistance Landscape: FY 2015 Annual Report, March 2016.

Close to 6 percent of District of Columbia residents participated in USDA's Summer Food Service Program in 2012

Thursday, September 1, 2016

When school is not in session, USDA?s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) provides free meals and snacks to children and teens at approved sites such as schools, churches, parks, community centers, and day camp programs.? SFSP meals must meet Federal nutrition guidelines and are served in areas with high concentrations of low-income children. In July 2012, the percent of a State?s total population participating in SFSP ranged from 0.2 percent in Nevada to 1.9 percent in New Mexico and New York.? That same year, 5.7 percent of the District of Columbia?s population participated in the program. Demographic factors help explain differences in program participation as a percentage of total population; higher SFSP participation rates could reflect a higher proportion of school-age children relative to total population, or a higher number of low-income children relative to the overall school-age population.? Differences in availability and accessibility of SFSP sites also play an important role in the variability across States. This map is from ERS?s Food Environment Atlas.

Fast food plays a larger role in all children's diets, but school food remains relatively more important for lower income children

Monday, August 22, 2016

Federal food intake surveys conducted between 1977 and 2012 reveal that, in the 1990s, fast food overtook school food as the largest source of food prepared away from home in children?s diets. However, school foods have remained a more important source of calories for lower income children than for higher income children. The mandated cutoff for free or reduced-price USDA school meals is a household income at or below 185 percent of the Federal poverty level. In 1977-78, school meals provided 10.1 percent of the calories consumed by lower income children eligible for free or reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches and 7.5 percent of higher income children?s total calories. In that same year, fast food provided 4.5 percent of higher income children?s average daily energy intake and 3.2 percent of lower income children?s calories. School food continued to provide about 10 percent of lower income children?s total calories in 1994-98 but, by 2011-12, the school food share fell to 8.1 percent and the fast food share rose to 14.2 percent. This chart appears in ?Linking Federal Food Intake Surveys Provides a More Accurate Look at Eating Out Trends? in the June 2016 issue of ERS?s Amber Waves magazine.

National School Lunch Program per-capita participation varies by State

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

In fiscal year 2014 (October to September), 30.5 million students participated in USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) on an average school day, with 72 percent of participants receiving the meals for free or at a reduced price. On a per-capita basis, this translates into 9.4 NSLP participants per 100 U.S. residents. Per-capita participation in the NSLP ranged from 6.8 participants per 100 residents in Alaska to 13 per 100 residents in Mississippi. Per-capita participation reflects both the percentage of the population that are enrolled in schools offering USDA meals, as well as the proportion of those students who take school lunch. For example, in Utah, where per-capita participation is 11.2 participants per 100 residents, school-aged children in schools offering USDA meals make up 21.5 percent of the population, and 52 percent of those students participate in the NSLP. Alaska’s lower rate reflects a low percentage of residents that are of school age (16 percent) and a lower rate of children participating in the program (42 percent of students). This map is from ERS’s Food Environment Atlas.

Per-capita participation in USDA's School Breakfast Program grew from 2009 to 2014 in almost all States

Friday, January 29, 2016

Per-capita participation in USDA’s School Breakfast Program (SBP) has increased from 3.6 participants per 100 U.S. residents in 2009 to 4.2 participants per 100 residents in 2014, and most States’ per-capita SBP participation levels rose. For most States, changes in population and in enrollment in schools that serve USDA school meals were less important than changes in the share of students who take school breakfast. For example, West Virginia’s increase from 5.1 to 7.1 SBP participants per 100 residents reflected small increases in the State’s population and school enrollments, and a large jump in the number of students taking school breakfast—increasing from 31 to 44 percent of students. In only four States did per-capita SBP participation levels decline, and these declines were 0.2 percentage point or less. School Breakfast Program participation across the whole United States has increased steadily from 11.1 million students in 2009 to 13.6 million in 2014 due to a variety of factors, including more schools offering the program, more schools offering free breakfast for all students, and increasing use of formats such as breakfast in the classroom, which reduces arrival-time barriers for many children. This map is from ERS’s Food Environment Atlas.

Southern and southwestern States have higher per capita participation in School Breakfast Program

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

In fiscal year 2014, 13.6 million students participated in USDA’s School Breakfast Program (SBP) on an average school day, with 85 percent of participants receiving the meals for free or at a reduced price. On a per-capita basis, this translates into 4.2 SBP participants per 100 U.S. residents. Per-capita participation in the SBP ranged from 1.6 participants per 100 residents in New Hampshire to 7.1 per 100 residents in New Mexico and West Virginia. Per-capita participation reflects both the percentage of the population that are enrolled in schools offering USDA meals, as well as the proportion of those students who take school breakfast. For example, in Texas, where per-capita participation is 6.9 participants per 100 residents, school-aged children in schools offering USDA meals make up 19 percent of the population, and 35 percent of those students participate in the SBP. New Hampshire’s lower rate reflects a low percentage of residents that are of school age (14 percent) and a lower rate of children participating in the program (11 percent of students). This map is from ERS’s Food Environment Atlas.

Costs per school breakfast drop more sharply than per-lunch costs as number served increases

Monday, January 4, 2016

Across America, on a typical school day more than 30 million children sit down to meals prepared and served through USDA’s National School Lunch Program and 13.5 million through the School Breakfast Program. Some school districts serve as many breakfasts as lunches, but other districts serve mainly lunches. Since production costs often depend on volume, this smaller number of breakfasts served raises questions about how per-breakfast costs compare with per-lunch costs. To examine how size affects costs, ERS researchers used data from a 2004 national survey (latest regionally representative cost data available) of local school food authorities (SFAs). The researchers constructed cost indices to examine how breakfast and lunch costs would vary if more meals were served. They found that for all three urbanicity types—urban, suburban, and rural—per-breakfast costs dropped by about 50 percent as the number of breakfasts grew from below average to above average. Because SFAs were already serving more lunches, lunch costs also dropped, but by just 20 percent. This chart appears in “Schools Vary—And That Means Meal Costs Vary Too” in the December 2015 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Costs per school breakfast drop more sharply than per-lunch costs as number served increases

Monday, January 4, 2016

Across America, on a typical school day more than 30 million children sit down to meals prepared and served through USDA's National School Lunch Program and 13.5 million through the School Breakfast Program. Some school districts serve as many breakfasts as lunches, but other districts serve mainly lunches. Since production costs often depend on volume, this smaller number of breakfasts served raises questions about how per-breakfast costs compare with per-lunch costs. To examine how size affects costs, ERS researchers used data from a 2004 national survey (latest regionally representative cost data available) of local school food authorities (SFAs). The researchers constructed cost indices to examine how breakfast and lunch costs would vary if more meals were served. They found that for all three urbanicity types—urban, suburban, and rural—per-breakfast costs dropped by about 50 percent as the number of breakfasts grew from below average to above average. Because SFAs were already serving more lunches, lunch costs also dropped, but by just 20 percent. This chart appears in Schools Vary?—And That Means Meal Costs Vary Too in the December 2015 issue of ERS's Amber Waves magazine.

School breakfast costs drop as number of breakfasts served increases

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, USDA reimburses school food authorities (SFAs) for providing meals that meet USDA nutritional standards. School districts generally expect SFA revenues—a combination of USDA reimbursements, payments by participating students, revenue from non-reimbursable food sales, and other non-Federal resources—to cover meal costs. Using data from a 2004 national study, ERS researchers constructed cost indices to allow comparisons across SFAs of how per meal costs would vary if more meals were served. Researchers found that the number of meals served had a large impact on per meal costs, especially for breakfasts. In all seven U.S. regions, breakfast costs dropped as the number of breakfasts increased. Per breakfast costs for the smallest SFAs were about twice that of the largest SFAs. Serving more breakfasts would allow SFAs to gain economies of scale—reduced per unit costs due to volume discounts in purchases, more efficient use of labor, or other efficiencies. This chart appears in the ERS report, Economies of Scale, the Lunch-Breakfast Ratio, and the Cost of USDA School Breakfasts and Lunches, released on November 5, 2015.

Rural school districts and those in the Southwest reported largest lunch price increases

Friday, November 6, 2015

In 2014, over 30 million U.S. schoolchildren participated in USDA’s National School Lunch Program on an average school day. Seventy-two percent of them received their meals for free, or paid a reduced price; the remaining 28 percent purchased the full-price, or paid, lunch. Until a few years ago, prices charged for paid lunches generally increased slowly to cover rising costs of producing school lunches. Starting in school year 2011-12, many districts raised prices more sharply to comply with the Paid Lunch Equity provision, which went into effect that year. This provision requires school districts to gradually ensure that average revenue per paid lunch plus the USDA paid lunch reimbursement is at least as high as the USDA reimbursement for free lunches. Paid-lunch prices rose by an average of 6.8 percent for school districts in the Southwest and 4.8 percent in the Mid-Atlantic between school years 2010-11 and 2011-12, according to ERS calculations using data from a USDA-sponsored study. Rural school districts reported an average increase of 4.7 percent in paid-lunch prices compared to an increase of 3.4 percent for city districts. Areas with higher price increases may experience greater reductions in paid-lunch participation since research shows that some families cut back on school lunch purchases when lunch prices rise. This chart appears in “A Look at What’s Driving Lower Purchases of School Lunches” in the October 2015 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Number of students paying full price for school lunches declined since the 2007-09 recession

Monday, October 19, 2015

In fiscal 2014, 30 million children participated in USDA’s National School Lunch Program on an average school day, down from a peak of 32 million in 2011. The decline since 2011 reflects a drop in students taking full-price, or “paid,” lunch that began in 2008. A sharp increase in students taking free lunch during 2008-11 as a result of the 2007-09 recession made up for the drop in students taking paid lunch. During 2011-14, students taking free lunch grew more slowly, while students taking paid lunch continued to fall at roughly the same pace. Participation also fell in the early 1980s in response to tightened access to free lunches, reduction in USDA reimbursements to schools, increases in prices for paid lunch, and the 1980-82 recession. This chart appears in “A Look at What’s Driving Lower Purchases of School Lunches” in the October 2015 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Participation rate for full price paid lunches in USDA's National School Lunch Program declined after 2008

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Since its start in 1946, USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has offered and served lunches to children of all income levels. Based on household income, eligible students can receive their lunches for free or at a reduced price. Students not approved for free or reduced price lunches can purchase NSLP lunches at the “paid lunch” price. For reduced price and paid lunches, participation rates—the share of students in each certification category who participate—have fallen in recent years. In fiscal 2014, 67 percent of students approved to receive reduced price meals took the reduced price lunch, down from 73 percent in fiscal 2009. After increasing during the 2000s, the paid lunch participation rate fell from 47 percent in fiscal 2008 to 37 percent in fiscal 2014. The participation rate for free lunches has been fairly constant at around 80 percent over 2007-2014. A combination of reasons may be affecting NSLP participation, including tougher economic times leading more parents to pack their children’s lunches rather than buy lunch, as well as recent changes to NSLP meal requirements and price increases for paid lunches. This chart is from the ERS report, School Meals in Transition, released on August 20, 2015.

Number of Summer Food Service Program sites grew in 2014

Monday, June 15, 2015

When school lets out for the summer, low-income children who participate in USDA’s National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs lose access to weekday free and reduced-price meals, which may be a hardship for income-strapped families. Through the Summer Food Service Program, USDA reimburses schools, camps, non-profit organizations, and community agencies for nutritious meals and snacks served at no charge to children at eligible sites. A site is eligible for USDA reimbursement if it operates in an area where at least half of the children come from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the Federal poverty level or if more than half of the children the site serves meet this income criterion. The number of sites offering summer meals rose 16 percent from 38,845 sites in 2012 to 45,170 sites in 2014. Participation on an average operating day in July increased from 2.3 million children in 2012 to 2.6 million children in 2014. In summer 2014, the program provided over 160 million meals and snacks to children at a cost to USDA of $465 million. This chart is from the Child Nutrition Programs: Summer Food Service Program topic page on the ERS website

Charts of Note header image for left nav