By David McClendon and Jenny Eyer, Center for Social Measurement and Evaluation
Across Texas, over 3 million low-income students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals through federal programs such as the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. For many of these children, meals eaten at school are the only substantial meals they will receive during the day.
School districts are critical players in implementing school food programs – yet, some districts are doing better than others in providing breakfast, lunch, and after-school meals to students in need.
CHILDREN AT RISK’s annual School Food Rankings evaluate how districts across Texas provide meals to low-income school children by focusing on meal participation rates and after-school meal programs.
School districts in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso regions are at the top of the rankings for the 2016-17 school year. As many as 80-90% of low-income students in these districts participated in school lunch and breakfast.
Among large school districts (at least 50,000 students), San Antonio ISD and Dallas ISD lead the way. In San Antonio ISD, more than 8-in-10 low-income students participate in school breakfast and lunch.
School districts with the highest levels of participation in school meal programs tend to be those with high levels of poverty due, in part, to the economies of scale that accompany greater demand.
Less impoverished districts (60-85% low-income) do not always qualify for federal reimbursement advantages that higher poverty districts do, and tend to face more challenges implementing school food programs to scale.
Many school districts also have high levels of student participation in their meal programs by offering a more varied menu and by using alternative delivery methods.
School food programs are not only an important tool to curb hunger, they are also linked to better academic performance. Students who are not hungry and have eaten nutritious meals are healthier and ready to learn, with fewer absences and visits to the school nurse.
With nearly 2 million food-insecure children in Texas, there is a pressing need for strong and well-performing school food programs.