Just over half of children in public schools across the U.S. were in families with near-poverty income levels that made them eligible for free or reduced price lunch in 2013. This statistic comes from the Southern Education Foundation’s research bulletin, A New Majority: Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation’s Public Schools, released earlier this year. Students from households with incomes of less than 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold qualify for free lunches; those in households with incomes less than 185 percent of the threshold can get meals for a reduced price.
The situation is worse in the South, where 57 percent of public school children qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2013; nearly three-quarters of children in public schools in Mississippi qualified. Children in public schools in the West followed the national average, with 51 percent qualifying for subsidized lunch. Children in public schools in the Midwest and Northeast fared only slightly better, where 44 percent and 42 percent, respectively, were eligible.
As the Southern Education Foundation’s report states,
“Half or more of the public schoolchildren in 21 states were eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches, a benefit available only to families living in poverty or near-poverty in 2013. In 19 other states, low income students constituted between 40 percent and 49 percent of the states’ public school enrollment. In other words, very high proportions of low income students were evident in four-fifths of the 50 states in 2013.”
Using data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, the Southern Education Foundation’s report notes that the 51 percent national statistic for 2013 is up from 38 percent in 2000. In the District of Columbia, where lawmakers make so many decisions that affect family incomes and the well-being of children, 61 percent of kids qualified for free or reduced meals.
Many of those decisions that elected officials make – or fail to make – affecting children and families are happening now. As members of Congress reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we must ensure that low-income children have access to the courses, academic resources, and related supports needed to provide the opportunities to succeed that every child should have. As Congress continues to work on spending bills for next year, we need to hold them accountable for their decisions on investments we’ll make – or won’t make – in housing vouchers, access to full-time, year-round Head Start, job training and health care coverage that will increase family outcomes across the country.
And one thing is clear: with so many children needing food help in the school year, we cannot leave them without help all summer long. A report from the Food Research and Action Center tells us that millions of low-income children benefit from summer nutrition programs, but the House of Representatives plans to cut funding for summer pilot programs that cut childhood food insecurity when school meals aren’t available. FRAC has a petition your organization can sign to show support for two much-needed summer nutrition programs – sign now; the deadline is July 15.
To see where your state stands, check out SEF’s chart from their report below. For more information on the National School Lunch Program, click here. To learn more how you can speak out and help stop federal cuts to human needs programs, click here.