(CNSNews.com) - Of the 5,052,222,946 school lunches served in Fiscal Year 2016, 73.3 percent of them -- the highest percentage on record -- were either free or reduced price meals, according to data posted on September 8, 2017 by the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service.
Free lunches comprised two-thirds (66.6 percent) of all lunches served in that school year; and reduced-price lunches comprised 6.7 percent. Students paid full price for the remaining 26.7 percent in Fiscal 2016, the latest year for which data is available.
(FY 2016 covers the 12-month period beginning in Oct. 2015 and running through Sept. 2016. It roughly coincides with the 2015-2016 school year.)
The percentage of free or reduced price meals served in public and non-profit private schools has steadily risen in each of the last nine years, from 59.3 percent in Fiscal Year 2007, to 73.3 percent in FY 2016, according to data compiled by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).
Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals.
In FY 2016, a total of 31,168,859 students participated in the federal government's school lunch program, and while that number is high, it is not a record. But the number of students getting free meals may continue to rise, depending on how many school systems do what New York City just did.
School lunch is now free for all public school students in New York City, regardless of income.
That's because New York City has enrolled in the federal government's Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), an Agriculture Department program that allows school districts or individual schools in high-poverty areas to provide free meals to all enrolled students if at least 40 percent of those students already are enrolled in other means-tested programs, such as SNAP, for example.
New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced on Sept. 6, 2017 that enrollment in CEP will provide an additional 200,000 New York City students with free lunches starting this school year. Last school year, 75 percent of New York City students were eligible for free lunch.
“We know that students cannot learn or thrive in school if they are hungry all day,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a news release last week. “Free school lunch will not only ensure that every kid in New York City has the fuel they need to succeed but also further our goal of providing an excellent and equitable education for all students.”
The Community Eligibility Provision, now operating in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam, was authorized by Congress as a part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
A USDA fact sheet said the program benefits "everyone."
It notes that schools enrolled in CEP no longer have to collect and verify household applications to determine students' eligibility for school meal programs. And they won't have to keep track of how many meals are free, reduced price, or paid. CEP also allows "streamlined meal service" in school cafeterias, where students will have more time to eat because they don't have to wait in line at the cashier.
The fact sheet also said parents won't have to worry about their children's lunch accounts; and students will benefit by getting nutritious meals without the "stigma" of being viewed as too poor to afford lunch.
According to the School Nutrition Association, school meal prices vary widely across the country and are set by local school districts. In the 2015-2016 school year, the average price for paid meals was $2.34 in elementary school, $2.54 for middle school, and $2.60 in high school.
In the long press release announcing free lunch for all students in New York City Public School schools, a number of elected officials mentioned "stigma."
"By dropping the income verification and allowing all children to eat free of charge, the de Blasio Administration is removing the stigma from those who receive free lunches and making sure that no one foregoes lunch because they do not have the money to pay for it,” said U.S. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.).
“Offering every student at a NYC public school free lunch will not only improve learning, it will help ensure those who cannot afford lunch aren’t unfairly stigmatized," said U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).
According to USDA, in school year 2015-2016 -- the second year of nationwide availability -- the Community Eligibility Provision reached about 8 million students in more than 17,000 schools in nearly 3,000 school districts.
USDA said it will "continue to promote adoption of CEP among eligible schools," and it anticipates that participation will continue to grow.
The USDA's Food and Nutrition Services notes that at some point during the year, about 1 in 4 Americans will participate in one or more of the 15 federal domestic food and nutrition assistance programs geared to needy families.
By far the most expensive program in FY16 was SNAP (food stamps), at $70.8 billion, followed by the school lunch program at $13.5 billion.
The $13.5 billion spent on school lunches in FY 2016 was a 4-percent increase from the previous fiscal year. FNS said the increase partly reflects the percentage increase in free meals, which are more heavily subsidized.
Also, federal reimbursement rates for school lunches in school year 2015-16 were higher than the previous school year due to an increase in the Consumer Price Index for food away from home (reimbursement rates for school meals are adjusted annually for inflation).