Participation in the National School Lunch Program

Gao ID: RCED-84-132 March 30, 1984

In response to a congressional request, GAO analyzed participation in the National School Lunch Program during the years immediately preceding and following changes in the Federal reimbursement rates to schools and income eligibility criteria for free and reduced-price meals made by the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1980 and the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981. GAO: (1) determined the number of students receiving free, reduced-price, and full-price school lunches; (2) determined the extent to which schools and students have dropped out of the program in recent years; (3) compared data on the number of families with eligible children and incomes meeting program eligibility criteria with program expenditure data; and (4) discussed data on School Lunch Program participation reported by the President's Task Force on Food Assistance.

GAO found that, over the past 5 years, the number of students participating in the School Lunch Program has declined from 27 million to 23.1 million. This decline is primarily attributable to reductions in the number of students eating full-price lunches. There has been a 2.9-percent decline in the number of schools in the nation over the past 5 years and a 6.5-percent decline in student enrollment. Although the 1980 and 1981 acts tightened eligibility criteria, total Federal expenditures for the School Lunch Program were greater in 1983 than at any time in the 5-year period except the peak year of 1981. During the same period, a greater share of Federal School Lunch Program expenditures was used to provide students with free lunches. Between 1979 and 1982, the number of families with school-age children and incomes at or below the nonfarm income poverty level increased, the number of families with children eligible for reduced-price lunches also increased, but the number of higher income families decreased. In addition, Federal expenditures for reduced-price and full-price lunches decreased. The President's Task Force on Food Assistance concluded that the percentage of families at or below the poverty threshold with school-age children and receiving free or reduced-price lunches remained stable between 1979 and 1982 and participation in the program declined for families with higher incomes. GAO found that these findings were consistent with the trends it reported.

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