Date: May 14, 2012
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Harnessing U.S. Census Data Could Expand Access to School Meals Programs
WASHINGTON — For more than 70 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has supported school meals programs in the nation's elementary and secondary schools. A new report from the National Research Council says that data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) could potentially increase the number of eligible children who receive nutritious meals each day while reducing the amount of time and resources spent by schools and families to participate in the programs.
Children who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs are typically identified through yearly applications or participation in government assistance programs. Several regulatory provisions -- including new provisions authorized by the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 -- eliminate formal applications. In return, a school district or school provides free meals to all students but must pay the difference between the USDA contribution and its total meal costs. These provisions are especially attractive for schools or districts with a high number of eligible students.
Every year, the ACS collects information on household composition, school attendance, income, and participation in government assistance programs that could provide a foundation for constructing estimates of total enrollment and students eligible for free and reduced-price meals. But the panel that wrote the report cautions that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to using the data.
It found substantial differences between ACS-based estimates and data collected by school districts, particularly in districts with high percentages of eligible students. Further analysis revealed that these differences vary both across and within districts. Several factors may contribute to the mismatch: the failure of the ACS to capture migrant or other students who do not live in traditional housing or reside in a school district all year; school choice opportunities, such as charter schools, which draw students across neighborhood or district lines; whether eligibility is based on annual versus monthly income; underreporting of income and program participation on surveys; and errors in certifying students under standard program operating procedures.
Districts that want to use the new ACS eligibility option should first assess whether their own data are either sufficiently close to ACS estimates or differ in a consistent way from year to year, the report says. Because of the resources required to do so, the panel recommended that USDA's Food and Nutrition Service provide technical assistance, a web-based tool to help districts make the required calculations and comparisons, and supplemental funding for early adopters that choose to use the ACS option to help cover costs of providing data and information to FNS.
The report also recommends ways to monitor and improve the quality and accuracy of ACS data for generating eligibility estimates as well as for a broad range of other uses. The panel found that existing data did not support a cost-benefit evaluation of the ACS option.
The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org. A committee roster follows.
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Pre-publication copies of Using American Community Survey Data to Expand Access to the School Meals Programs are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).
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NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Committee on National Statistics
Committee on Estimating Children Eligible for School Nutrition Programs Using the American Community Survey