Free and reduced-price meal (FRM) eligibility is commonly used in education research and policy applications as an indicator of student poverty. However, using multiple data sources external to the school system, we show that FRM status is a poor proxy for poverty, with eligibility rates far exceeding what would be expected based on stated income thresholds for program participation. This is true even without accounting for community eligibility for free meals, although community eligibility has exacerbated the problem in recent years. Over the course of showing the limitations of using FRM data to measure poverty, we provide promising validity evidence for a new, publicly-available measure of school poverty based on local-area family incomes.
The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a policy change to the federally-administered National School Lunch Program that allows schools serving low-income populations to classify all students as eligible for free meals, regardless of individual circumstances. This has implications for the use of free and reduced-price meal (FRM) data to proxy for student disadvantage in education research and policy applications, which is a common practice. We document empirically how the CEP has affected the value of FRM eligibility as a proxy for student disadvantage. At the individual student level, we show that there is essentially no effect of the CEP. However, the CEP does meaningfully change the information conveyed by the share of FRM-eligible students in a school. It is this latter measure that is most relevant for policy uses of FRM data.
Note: Portions of this paper were previously circulated under the title “Using Free Meal and Direct Certification Data to Proxy for Student Disadvantage in the Era of the Community Eligibility Provision.” We have since split the original paper into two parts. This is the first part.