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States with the highest number of kids dependent on free lunches

Mack DeGeurin

Aug 5, 2019

One in five American children live below the poverty line.

Over 2.9 million students live in households where they are unsure when they might get their next meal.

Around 30 million students around the country qualify for free or reduced cost school lunches through a federal program called the National School Lunch Program.

A New York Times report released this week shows how a new rule being proposed by the Department of Agriculture to restrict access to food stamps (one qualifier for free school lunches) could kick more than 500,000 students off their lunch plan.

States with the most students eligible for federally subsidized free lunches also tend to have the most cases of child poverty, INSIDER found.

INSIDER reviewed federal data to find out how dependent on free lunches students were in every US state.

The top ten most dependent states were all based in the southern United States.

Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

If you’ve ever tried to complete a work day or study for a test on an empty stomach, you probably understand the importance of a healthy stable diet for success. For students, that fuel usually comes in the form of daily school lunches, yet, for millions of American children, paying for school lunch is a luxury they simply cannot afford.

A report released by UNICEF found one in five American children falls below the poverty line. Of the 35 countries the report analyzed, the United States ranked a shocking 34th when it came to child poverty. That all adds up to nearly three million American children officially recognized as food insecure by the US Department of Agriculture. When these children return home from school, the prospect of a hot meal waiting for them on the dinner table is far from certain. The lunch provided at school could be the only meal they eat all day.

A school lunch might not initially seem like an expensive line item, but those lunches can add up. In some cases, students and their families are taking on school lunch debt, sometimes with dire consequences. Earlier this month a school district in Pennsylvania threatened to have children removed from their families and sent to foster care if their parents did not pay off their lunch debt.

Luckily, many of these students can benefit from free and reduced-cost lunches through a federal subsidy called the National School Lunch Program. First formed in 1946 under the Truman Administration, the program has since expanded and helped fill the bellies of 30.4 million kids in 2016. Nearly 100,000 of an estimated 130,000 US schools voluntarily participate in the program. Public schools and non-profit private schools all around the country receive cash subsidies from the federal government and use those subsidies to provide lunches to students free of charge.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, any student in a participating school can get an NSLP lunch regardless of the student’s household income. Eligible students can receive free or reduced-price lunches: Free lunches are available to children in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of poverty. Reduced-price lunches are available to children in households with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty threshold. (The poverty threshold for a single person is $12,448. That number increases depending on how many children are in the family. The threshold for a family of five, for example, would be $30,170). In addition to household income, students also automatically qualify for free lunches if they come from a family already receiving food stamps.
 
INSIDER looked at federal data to see which states had the most students dependent on free or reduced cost school lunches. The results tended to be on par with those particular state’s child poverty rates. Continue scrolling below to see which states have the highest percentage of children dependent on free lunches and where your state stacks up.
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50: New Hampshire requires public schools make meals available during school hours.

Total number of students: 194,001
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 9.8%
Number of students eligible: 48,904
Percentage of students eligible: 25.2%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, National Center for Education Statistics, Center for American Progress

The lunch provided at school could be the only meal they eat all day

49: North Dakota provides state funding to help schools reduce the cost of school breakfast.

Total number of students: 94,273
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 10.7% 
Number of students eligible: 30,683
Percentage of students eligible: 31.7%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

48: New Jersey requires all schools where 20% of students qualify for reduced price lunches to also participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 1,356,882
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 13.8%
Number of students eligible: 444,735
Percentage of students eligible: 32.8%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

47: Massachusetts requires schools make lunches available to children. The state reimburses schools up to $0.10 for every breakfast they serve.

Total number of students: 955,301
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 13.2%
Number of students eligible: 444,735
Percentage of students eligible: 34.2% 
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

46: Connecticut requires all schools where 80% of students qualify for reduced price lunches to also participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 552,919
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 12.4%
Number of students eligible: 190,554
Percentage of students eligible: 34.5%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

45: Minnesota requires all schools where 33% of students qualify for reduced price lunches to also participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 837,930
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 11.3%
Number of students eligible: 296,756
Percentage of students eligible: 36.5%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

44: Virginia requires all schools where 25% of students qualify for reduced price lunches to also participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 1,250,206
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 13.7%
Number of students eligible: 444,715
Percentage of students eligible: 36.7%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

43: Vermont requires all its public schools to participate in the National School Lunch Program and a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 85,144
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 13.4%
Number of students eligible: 29,529
Percentage of students eligible: 36.8%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

42: South Dakota does not require its schools to participate in federal lunch programs.

Total number of students: 125,883
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 16.3%
Number of students eligible: 45,956
Percentage of students eligible: 37.1%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

41: Wyoming does not require its schools to participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Total number of students: 88,779
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 13.0%
Number of students eligible: 31,054
Percentage of students eligible: 37.1% 
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

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40: Utah uses money made from liquor taxes to reimburse schools for lunch programs.

Total number of students: 585,552
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 10.4%
Number of students eligible: 223,943
Percentage of students eligible: 38.2%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

39: Alaska doesn’t require schools to participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Total number of students: 132,104
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 14.3%
Number of students eligible: 50,701
Percentage of students eligible: 38.2%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

38: Iowa requires all of its schools provide lunches that meet the nutrition requirements set forth by the National School Lunch Program.

Total number of students: 484,856
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 11.9%
Number of students eligible: 188,486
Percentage of students eligible: 38.9%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

37: Wisconsin provides an additional reimbursement to schools of $0.15 per lunch.

Total number of students: 872,164
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 14.0%
Number of students eligible: 342,660
Percentage of students eligible: 39.3%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

36: Pennsylvania will reimburse schools at least $0.10 of every breakfast or lunch served.

Total number of students: 1,742,608
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 16.7%
Number of students eligible: 686,641
Percentage of students eligible: 39.4%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

35: All Colorado schools where 70% or more of students receive discounted lunches are also required to offer breakfast.

Total number of students: 842,864
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 11.7%
Number of students eligible: 319,404
Percentage of students eligible: 39.9%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

34: All Washington schools where 40% or more of students receive discounted lunches are also required to offer breakfast.

Total number of students: 1,043,466
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 13.8%
Number of students eligible: 428,258
Percentage of students eligible: 40.1%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

33: Maryland requires all public elementary schools to offer both free and reduced price lunch programs.

Total number of students: 852,202
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 11.7%
Number of students eligible: 324,904
Percentage of students eligible: 40.1%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

32: Montana does not require schools to participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Total number of students: 140,497
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 14.4%
Number of students eligible: 57,836
Percentage of students eligible: 41.2%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

31: Nebraska reimburses schools $0.05 for every school breakfast they serve.

Total number of students: 298,276
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 13.6%
Number of students eligible: 127,114
Percentage of students eligible: 42.6%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

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30: All Ohio public and charter schools where more than 20% of students qualify for reduced price lunch are required to participate in the National School Lunch Program and a federal school breakfast program.

Total number of students: 1,747,851
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 19.7%
Number of students eligible: 745,121
Percentage of students eligible: 42.6%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

29: All Rhode Island public schools are required to operate a school lunch and breakfast program.

Total number of students: 142,575
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 16.4%
Number of students eligible: 61,127
Percentage of students eligible: 42.9%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

28: Maine requires all K-8 schools to participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Total number of students: 183,477
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 12.4%
Number of students eligible: 78,915
Percentage of students eligible: 43%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

27: Idaho will reimburse public schools for providing students with an afternoon snack.

Total number of students: 275,815
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 15.0%
Number of students eligible: 124,104
Percentage of students eligible: 45%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Idaho.gov, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

26: All Missouri schools where 35% of students qualify for reduced lunches are required to participate in a a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 902,375
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 18.1%
Number of students eligible: 406,358
Percentage of students eligible: 45%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

25: Arizona requires all K-8 schools to participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Total number of students: 1,067,210
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 20.4%
Number of students eligible: 482,044
Percentage of students eligible: 45.2%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

24: All Michigan K–12 school districts are required to participatein the National School Lunch Program.

Total number of students: 1,551,861
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 19.3%
Number of students eligible: 719,800
Percentage of students eligible: 46.4%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

23: Illinois requires all schools where 70% of students qualify for reduced price lunches to also participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 1,973,401
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 16.8%
Number of students eligible: 921,471
Percentage of students eligible: 46.7%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

22: Indiana requires all schools where 15% of students qualify for reduced price lunches to also participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 1,038,817
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 17.9%
Number of students eligible: 474,326
Percentage of students eligible: 46.8%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

21: Hawaii requires school lunch and breakfast to be served at every school. Schools are also not allowed to deny anyone a meal if they can’t pay within their first 21 days of school.

Total number of students: 179,601
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 11.0%
Number of students eligible: 84,106
Percentage of students eligible: 46.8%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

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20: All Kansas public schools are required to participate in a federal school breakfast program.

Total number of students: 479,953
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 14.4%
Number of students eligible: 228,852
Percentage of students eligible: 47.7%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

19: Delaware supplements up to 70% of the salaries for school food services staff.

Total number of students: 128,342
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 18.3%
Number of students eligible: 61,564
Percentage of students eligible: 48%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

18: All New York public schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program are also required to participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 2,722,761
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 19.4%
Number of students eligible: 1,315,564
Percentage of students eligible: 48.3%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

17: Texas requires all schools to provide students with free breakfast if at least 80% of the students qualify for reduced price lunches.

Total number of students: 4,916,401
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 20.7%
Number of students eligible: 2,471,212
Percentage of students eligible: 50.3%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

16: North Carolina requires all its public schools to participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Total number of students: 1,487,699
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 20.9%
Number of students eligible: 747,978
Percentage of students eligible: 50.3%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

15: Nevada requires all schools where 70% of students qualify for reduced price lunches to also participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 426,838
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 18.2%
Number of students eligible: 219,904
Percentage of students eligible: 50.3%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

14: Oregon school districts are required to provide children with afederally reimbursable meal, even if they don’t have the funds to pay for it.

Total number of students: 553,468
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 15.9%
Number of students eligible: 280,174
Percentage of students eligible: 50.6%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

13. West Virginia requires all schools to operate a lunch and breakfast program.

Total number of students: 282,879
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 25.5%
Number of students eligible: 147,036
Percentage of students eligible: 51.5%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

12: California requires all public schools to offer at least one meal per day to students who qualify for reduced price lunches.

Total number of students: 6,169,427
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 17.8%
Number of students eligible: 3,335,885
Percentage of students eligible: 54.1%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

11: South Carolina requires all of its public schools to participate in the National School Lunch Program and a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 722,203
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 22.3%
Number of students eligible: 395,033
Percentage of students eligible: 54.7%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

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10: All Tennessee schools are required to operate a school lunch program. Elementary schools where more than 25% of students qualify for reduced price lunches are also required to participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 987,078
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 20.9%
Number of students eligible: 542,953
Percentage of students eligible: 55%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

9: Alabama does not require schools to participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Total number of students: 730,427
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 24.3%
Number of students eligible: 411,067
Percentage of students eligible: 55.1%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

8: Florida requires all public elementary schools to participate in a federal school breakfast program. All schools where more than 80% of students qualify for reduced price lunches are required to provide free lunches to all students, regardless of income.

Total number of students: 2,641,555
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 20%
Number of students eligible: 1,479,519
Percentage of students eligible: 56%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

7: Kentucky does not require schools participate in the National School Lunch Program. But, bus schedules in Kentucky have to be arranged so that students can arrive early enough to eat breakfast.

Total number of students: 673,128
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 22%
Number of students eligible: 380,773
Percentage of students eligible: 56.6%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

6: Georgia requires all schools where 25% of students qualify for reduced price lunches to also participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 1,676,419
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 20.7%
Number of students eligible: 961,954
Percentage of students eligible: 57.4%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

5: Arkansas requires all schools where 20% of students qualify for reduced price lunches to also participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 482,114
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 22.1%
Number of students eligible: 286,477
Percentage of students eligible: 60.5%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

4: Oklahoma does not requires schools participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Total number of students: 659,376
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 21.2%
Number of students eligible: 398,917
Percentage of students eligible: 60.5%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

3: Louisiana requires all schools where 25% of students qualify for reduced price lunches to also participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 695,772
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 27.8%
Number of students eligible: 460,546
Percentage of students eligible: 66.2%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Prosperity, National Center for Education Statistics

 

2: New Mexico requires all schools where 85% of students qualify for reduced price lunches to also participate in a federal breakfast program.

Total number of students: 335,810
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 27%
Number of students eligible: 227,077
Percentage of students eligible: 67.6%
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

1: Mississippi does not require all its schools to participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Total number of students: 489,462
Percentage of kids living below the poverty line: 26.7%
Number of students eligible: 344,107
Percentage of students eligible: 70.6 %
Sources: Food and Research Action Center, Center for American Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

 

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