Under-Enrollment and Under-Participation in Vermont’s School Lunch Program

An Analysis of Causes and Solutions
PRS Briefs
PRS Policy Brief 1112-12
Tuesday, May 22, 2012

In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture ranked Vermont the ninth hungriest state in America. Research shows that children are especially affected by food insecurity. The federal government runs a National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to help families in need provide food for their children. However, not all eligible children are enrolled in the program and not all enrolled children participate in the program. This report analyzes case studies and general overviews of the program to investigate the main causes of under-enrollment and under-participation and propose possible solutions to mitigate these problems. We find that the complexity and stigma of filling out forms are the largest barriers to enrollment. On the participation side, social stigma felt by participants appears to be the largest barrier, although others, such as the prevalence of vending machines carrying low cost a la carte items, also drive down participation.

The report assesses the costs and benefits of policies for responding to both problems, but with a larger focus on under-participation, the more pressing and complex of the two problem areas. Specifically, we examine the costs and benefits of the following policies:

  1. No participation in NSLP
  2. Maintaining current policy
  3. Increasing outreach to encourage enrollment, participation
  4. Make reduced price meals free
  5. Invest in technologies to encourage anonymous participation
  6. Establish and fund a universal free meal policy

We also address the extent of uncertainty with regard to data on both under-enrollment and under-participation. Further research exploring the extent of incorrect or under- enrollment or in identifying specific levels and causes of under-participation in Vermont, such as through a student-level survey, would be beneficial to policy makers.