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Rural households are less likely than urban ones to participate in the free-lunch program for school-aged children, even though they qualify for the federal nutrition program at about the same rate as urban households do.

About 63 percent of rural households that qualify for the nutrition assistance take advantage of it, according to the study by Jessica Carson at the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy.

In cities, 71 percent of eligible households participated.

Suburban households that were eligible were least likely to participate – with a rate of about 59 percent.

The school-lunch program provides free or reduced-price lunches to children who live in households with an income less than 185 percent of the poverty rate.  (That figure translated to about $44,100 for a family of four in 2013.)

Urban and rural households qualify for the program at roughly the same rate – between 42 and 43 percent of households with children, Carson wrote in an email to the Daily Yonder. In suburban areas, about 28 percent of households with children meet the income requirements.

Although the study did not include analysis of why families chose not to participate, Carson said the variance may relate to differences in how families perceive these programs in cities, suburbs, and rural areas

“Those of us familiar with non-urban places can certainly envision why” rural households might participate at a lower rate, she told the Daily Yonder. “In rural places in particular, where schools may be smaller and communities may be closer-knit, participation in the school meals program may be associated with more stigma than in other types of schools – a small town ‘everyone-knows-everything-about-everyone’ kind of scenario.”

She said research has shown that stigma lowers rural residents’ participation in other safety-net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

In her study, Carson said the participation rate could be part of the discussion as Congress considers renewal of the legislation that authorizes the school-lunch program. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 expires at the end of September.

She said increasing the participation rate could have both health and academic implications.

“Research suggests that children who receive free or reduced-price meals at school are more likely to have their nutritional needs met than those who do not participate, and that kids who are well nourished have better school attendance and performance,” Carson wrote in her research brief.

“I think this disparity makes the topic particularly salient for legislators with rural constituents and for rural practitioners,” Carson told the Daily Yonder. “Since eligibility in rural places is relatively high, yet participation among eligible households is only moderate, this is a good time and place for conversations around program and policy improvement.”

Participation in the free school breakfast program, also part of the Hunger-Free Kids Act, is lower across the board than in the lunch program, Carson found. About half of eligible households in rural and suburban areas participate. In urban areas, about 59 percent do.

Carson said one factor that could affect rural children’s participation in the breakfast program is complications with transportation. “Whether kids are on a bus that’s traversing the county, or whether they’re catching a ride with a parent, the flexibility of walking to school and showing up at a time that works specifically for grabbing breakfast at school is less often an option for a rural child than for a child in the city,” Carson said.

The analysis was based on data from the Census Bureau’s 2013 Current Population Survey’s Food Security Supplement.

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