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School Lunch and P-EBT Valuation in the 2021 Supplemental Poverty Measure

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Working Paper Number SEHSD-WP2022-15

The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) is released annually by the U.S. Census Bureau based on data collected in the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC). The SPM accounts for many sources of government assistance when estimating the poverty rate. It includes benefits provided by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which subsidizes lunches served in public and nonprofit private schools. When the NSLP is operating normally, all student lunches are either partially or fully subsidized. The value of this subsidy is included as a resource in the SPM, traditionally calculated using per-meal reimbursement rates for a 179-day school year.

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated response disrupted school lunch provision during 2020. Using the traditional method to value SPM school lunch benefits was inadequate given school closures and the implementation of the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program. A new method was developed for 2020 that accounted for school closures and P-EBT. Due to additional changes in school operating status, the P-EBT program, and school lunch provision, a different method is needed for 2021. 

This paper describes the NSLP and how school lunch provision changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It then describes the updated method for calculating and assigning school lunch values in the 2021 SPM, comparing the traditional method and the new method. The paper concludes with a discussion of the limitations of the new method. 


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