Children Eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch*
Percentage of children enrolled in public schools that are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. The 2023 County Health Rankings used data from 2020-2021 for this measure.
Food insecurity and hunger are known to impair child development and increase risk of poor health outcomes.1 The National School Lunch Program leads to substantial reductions in childhood food insecurity, poor health, and obesity.2 Under the National School Lunch Act, eligible children (based on family size and income) receive adequate nutrition to help support development and a healthy lifestyle. In addition, eligibility for free or reduced price lunch is a useful indicator of family poverty and its effect on children. When combined with poverty data, this measure can also be used to identify gaps in eligibility and enrollment.
Data and methods
National Center for Education Statistics
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) fulfills a Congressional mandate to collect, collate, analyze, and report complete statistics on the condition of American education; conduct and publish reports; and review and report on education activities internationally.
NCES is the primary federal entity responsible for collecting and analyzing data related to education. For states where cohort graduation data was not available, the Average Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) was used. AFGR by county were estimated based on school district information provided to us by the NCES.
Key Measure Methods
Children Eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch is a percentage
Children Eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch is the percentage of children enrolled in public schools that are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.
The method for calculating Children Eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch has changed
For the 2016 Rankings and previous years, the measure was included as Children Eligible for Free Lunch, defined as the percentage of children enrolled in public schools that are eligible for free lunch. Starting in the 2017 Rankings, the measure was changed to also include children eligible for reduced price lunch.
The numerator is the number of public school students, grades PK-12, eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Children eligible for free lunch live in a family with income less than 130% of the federal poverty level, while children eligible for reduced price lunch live in a family with income less than 185% of the federal poverty level.
The denominator is the total number of students enrolled in public schools, grades PK-12.
Can This Measure Be Used to Track Progress
This measure can be used to track progress with some caveats. Methodology changes in the 2017 Rankings make comparisons prior to that year difficult.
Finding More Data
Disaggregation means breaking data down into smaller, meaningful subgroups. Disaggregated data are often broken down by characteristics of people or where they live. Disaggregated data can reveal inequalities that are otherwise hidden. These data can be disaggregated by:
- Subcounty Area
The ELSI Table Generator provided by the National Center for Education Statistics allows for the creation of data tables displaying the number of public school students eligible for free and reduced price lunch by gender, race, grade level, and school.
1 Ke J, Ford-Jones EL. Food Insecurity and Hunger: A Review of the Effects on Children’s Health and Behaviour. Paediatrics Child Health. 2015 March; 20(2), 89-91.
2 Gundersen C, Kreider B, Pepper J. The Impact of the National School Lunch Program on Child Health: A Nonparametric Bounds Analysis. Journal of Econometrics. 2012 January; 166(1):79-91.