Summary

School nutrition programs help improve nutrition among vulnerable children. In so doing, they help build a better future for these children and the state. Now that California is implementing the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), there is additional reason to make sure all students who are eligible for free or low-cost meals enroll in these programs. Along with English Learners and foster youth, low-income students—in other words, students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals—are targeted for additional funds under the LCFF. This renewed focus on enrollment could also prompt further consideration of participation in school nutrition programs. This report looks at factors that might be linked to variations in student enrollment and participation in free or reduced-price meals. Not surprisingly, we find that districts with higher poverty rates identify higher levels of eligibility than wealthier districts. Low-income high school students appear to be enrolled at levels comparable to younger students, but students in elementary school districts are much more likely to participate in lunch programs than students in other types of districts. We also find that schools in districts with higher shares of foreign-born residents have modestly lower participation levels (but not identification of low-income students). Finally, we find evidence that schools with smaller enrollments are more successful than larger schools at identifying and serving low-income students. One way to further the goal of full enrollment among low-income students is to cut the large share of low-income students who must submit applications for free or reduced-price meals. Achieving this objective is arguably an important part of a larger state effort to integrate social safety net programs and services.