Food for Thought: Missouri Household Food Security and the National School Lunch Program

Ryan Betz, Graduate Research Assistant, AmeriCorps VISTA Fellow
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Far too many Missourians struggle with food insecurity. On average, Missouri households experience food insecurity at a higher rate than the U.S. as a whole. The USDA Economic Research Service found that from 2011 to 2013, 16.9% of Missouri households were food insecure compared to only 14.6% nationally. Ten years prior, 10.4% of Missouri households experienced food insecurity, just below the 11% average nationwide at that time. This statistically significant 6.5 percentage-point increase in Missouri household food insecurity from 2001-2003 to 2011-2013 represents a concerning trend for the state. This translates into roughly 400,000 Missouri households experiencing food insecurity today.

Many federal programs seek to reduce the number of Americans who are food insecure. Collectively referred to as the Food and Nutrition Safety Net (FNSN), these programs are critical in ameliorating the day-to-day food security challenges facing millions across the country. One FNSN program is the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). NSLP provides low-cost or free lunches every day to public school children based on categorical, income, or community eligibility. School children can be categorically eligible for NSLP based on their household participation in other federal means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Income eligibility is established by demonstrating that gross household income is below 130 percent of the federal poverty line for free meals, or between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty line for reduced meals. And beginning in 2012, schools with at least 40 percent of school children qualifying for free meals based on categorical eligibility can qualify for community eligibility in which meals are provided free to all children. In 2012, NSLP provided low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children across the country.

In Missouri, NSLP has been effective in feeding over 400,000 school children each school year for the past four years. However, Missouri faces concerning trends in NSLP eligibility. From 2011 to 2014, the number of Missouri children eligible to participate in the NSLP has increased. According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), in 2011, 415,945 school children were eligible for NSLP, which was 47.8% of public school children that year. By 2014, the number of school children eligible for NSLP increased by over 20,000 to 437,271, which was 50.3% of public school children that year. Consequently, a growing number of Missouri school children and households now rely on NSLP to prevent or mitigate the effects of food insecurity.

Also concerning for Missouri is the gap between NSLP eligibility and participation. Statewide, only 82% of eligible school children participated in NSLP in 2012. This represents an 18 percentage-point gap in Missouri’s NSLP eligibility and participation. The NSLP eligibility and participation gap in Missouri represents the number of kids from eligible households who could be getting free or reduced lunch but are not. The gap between NSLP eligibility and participation in Missouri is a concern because it means that many families are remaining food insecure when there is help available for them through NSLP.

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Across the state, the magnitude of gaps varies county by county. Below are two figures from the 2013 Missouri Hunger Atlas on the state of NSLP in Missouri. The figure in red shows the percentage of school children eligible for the NSLP in Missouri by county. The figure in blue shows the percentage of NSLP eligible children actually participating in Missouri by county. For example, in Clark County 63.8% of students are eligible for NSLP and 90.1% of those eligible participate. This demonstrates high performance considering the high need of the county. On the other hand, Boone County demonstrates low performance considering the need. In Boone County, 32.7% of school children are eligible, but only 76.7% of those eligible are participating in NSLP.

In light of Missouri’s food insecurity trends and NSLP gaps, what do we know about NSLP’s effectiveness in addressing household food insecurity? A forthcoming Policy Brief by the Institute of Public Policy summarizes a recent study that tests NSLP’s effectiveness in addressing household food insecurity nationally. Previously, research provided a lack of clear evidence regarding the efficacy of the NSLP on household food insecurity. Recent research conducted by Truman School faculty examines the change in household food security as children enter kindergarten and are able to access NSLP. The authors find that NSLP is associated with reductions in household food insecurity, contributing to the growing literature that the federal food program is effective. In light of this, Missouri’s household food insecurity trends and NSLP eligibility and participation gaps provide serious food for thought.

While NSLP and other FNSN programs do not provide a long-term solution to factors leading to food insecurity, FNSN programs ameliorate the day-to-day struggles of households experiencing food insecurity. As more Missouri school children are eligible for NSLP, participation is critical in curbing the growing number of households facing food insecurity. Below is a map I created using data from the 2013 Missouri Hunger Atlas that highlights counties with high, average and low need, but with low performance in addressing NSLP participation.  Red counties represent participation gaps in the highest need areas, orange counties indicate gaps in average need areas, and yellow counties represent performance gaps in low need areas. These areas represent the largest NSLP gaps in Missouri.

In order to address Missouri’s growing food security challenges, thoughtful research and interventions should work together to reverse trends in Missouri household food insecurity and to close NSLP eligibility and participation gaps.Further research is needed to test NSLP’s effectiveness in addressing household food insecurity specifically in Missouri. This research would be helpful to learn whether or not NSLP is effective in reducing food insecurity for Missourians, and if so, by how much. But uncertainty is no excuse for inaction. In order to begin to close some of Missouri’s largest NSLP gaps nowstate policymakers, school leaders, researchers, and other stakeholders should strategically target interventions in counties with need but with low performance. An important first step might be to consult with leaders from successful NSLP counties in Missouri to develop and share best practices for enrolling eligible school children to participate in NSLP. Gleaning these lessons from counties successfully addressing NSLP eligibility and participation might begin to get more Missouri school children and households on the path of food security sooner rather than later.