Reaching a Vulnerable Population: Why Adolescents Participate in the National School Lunch Program
Fourteen percent of households with children under 18 years were food insecure in 2018. However, participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is lower among adolescents compared to younger children. This analysis examined, in a national sample of middle and high school students, the reasons why adolescents participate in the NSLP.
This analysis used data from the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study collected from adolescents (ages 10–19) attending middle and high schools with a known household food security status (n = 1,106). Adolescents were asked their number one reason for eating the school lunch. Results were compared by school level, income-eligibility for free or reduced price meals, and household food security status. A logistic regression examined the sociodemographic factors associated with adolescents' number one reason for eating the school lunch.
The most frequently cited reason for participating in school lunch was hunger. Adolescents who were income-eligible for free or reduced price meals and those from food insecure households were significantly more likely to report hunger as their main reason for participating in the NSLP compared to those who were not income-eligible and those who were from food secure households, respectively. After controlling for characteristics of schools and school food authorities and student demographics, income eligibility was the only student characteristic that emerged as a significant predictor of reporting hunger as the main reason for participation.
The results demonstrate that adolescents who regularly participate in the NSLP do so due to hunger, particularly if they are from low-income families.