The practice of using free and reduced price meal (FRPM) eligibility as a proxy for poverty is pervasive in educational research and policymaking. More thorough consideration of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) makes at least one thing clear: the statistics help us understand how many students are eligible for the program, but they have considerable limitations when used as an indicator of student need or socioeconomic status:
- Eligibility for free or reduced price meals does not entirely capture a student’s access (or lack of access) to economic resources such as parental income, education level, and family wealth.
- The combined percentage of students eligible for free and reduced meals does not show income differences between the two income categories.
- Districts and schools that have the same combined percentage of students eligible for FRPM may have substantial differences in the percentage of their students that are eligible for free meals.
- Participation rates in the NSLP may vary based on different certification procedures at the district level.
- The Connecticut Education Data and Research website collects and reports FRPM data differently from the State Department of Education Bureau of Health, Nutrition, Family Services, and Adult Education. Thus, there are at least two sources of FRPM data with different numbers of eligible students reported for the same schools and districts.
We recommend caution in using FRPM statistics and consideration of alternative measures to indicate student need and/or socioeconomic status.