By Jan Poppendieck
What if eligibility standards and reimbursement rates in federal Child Nutrition programs were adjusted for local cost of living?
The School Lunch, School Breakfast, Child and Adult Care Feeding and Summer Meals Programs provide millions of meals to New York City youngsters every year. Meals are provided free to children from families with incomes below 130% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) currently $25,389 for a mom and two children. The federal reimbursement for these meals is about $3.00 per lunch, $1.60 for breakfast, and $.80 per after school snack. Children with family incomes between 130% and 180% of the FPL (currently $36,131 for a family of three) are eligible for reduced price meals, and their meals reimbursed at the free rates minus $.40 for lunch or snack and $.30 for breakfast, the maximum amounts that schools and providers are permitted to charge for these meals. In New York City schools, children eligible for reduced price meals eat free. Thus the FPL determines how many children are eligible to eat free, and the total amount of the reimbursement received by meal providers.
Except for Alaska and Hawaii, which have significantly higher eligibility thresholds and reimbursement rates, a single FPL is used for all eligibility calculations across the nation. The net effect is to penalize children and child nutrition providers in areas with high costs of living—like New York City. In such areas, many children in real need, children whose families struggle with high rent, utility and food costs, are not eligible for free meals. Figuring the national average for urban areas at 100, the Cost of Living Index for Brooklyn was 171.5 in 2013. Queens came in at 152.0 and Manhattan topped the chart at 220.4. If our eligibility levels were adjusted to cost of living, nearly all students in NYC schools would be eligible for either free or reduced price meals.
The penalty imposed on high cost of living areas is amplified by the use of a single reimbursement rate. Communities with lower labor costs, typically areas with lower costs of living, have more money to spend on food, and can thus provide more attractive meals, increasing their participation rates. If reimbursement rates were adjusted to reflect local costs, not only would more children be eligible for meals reimbursed at the free rate, but the rate itself would be higher. School Nutrition consultant Barry Sackin has proposed a five tier model in which counties would be assigned to one of five groups based on their cost of living index score. 
It is time to seek parity in school meal eligibility and reimbursement.
There may be reasons why this could not work; send your obstacles, critiques and suggested improvements, as well as your own Pie-in-the-Sky ideas to [email protected]. We’ll post them!