Record 18.7 Million Students in FY 2012 Got ‘Free’ Lunch

By Terence P. Jeffrey | March 12, 2013 | 11:46am EDT

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan eats lunch at a school in Martinsburg, W.Va. (AP Photo)

( - It is an old saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but a record 18.7 million American schoolchildren would not have learned that lesson when they attended school in fiscal year 2012.

That is because U.S. taxpayers—via the U.S. Department of Agriculture—were picking up the tab for their lunch.

According to new data from the USDA, during the average school month in fiscal year 2012, 18.7 million students in U.S. high schools and grammar schools were given completely free lunches, courtesy of the department’s National School Lunch Program. That was up from the record of 18.4 million that was set in fiscal 2011.

Back in 1969, the average monthly number of schoolchildren getting free lunches was only 2.9 million. As recently as 1990, it was only 9.8 million.

In addition to giving away completely free lunches, the National School lunch program also gives away partially subsidized lunches—or what it calls “reduced-price lunches” and “paid lunches.”

When a student buys a “paid lunch” at a participating school, federal taxpayers are required to subsidize that lunch by $0.27, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When a student buys a “reduced-price lunch,” taxpayers are made to pay $2.46. When a student takes a “free lunch,” taxpayers are made to pay $2.86 cents.

The payments are made in the form of “reimbursements” for each and every meal that the U.S.D.A. sends to the participating schools.

In fiscal 2012, in addition to the record 18.7 million students who took completely free lunches, there were also 2.7 million who took “reduced-price” lunches, and 10.2 million who took “paid” lunches.

All in all, in the average school month in fiscal 2012, 31.6 million high school and grammar school students got federally subsidized lunches.

The total cost to the taxpayers for the school lunch program in 2012 was $10,410,100,000.00.

And that does not count free breakfasts.

The federal government’s “School Breakfast Program” also had record participation in fiscal 2012, with 9.76 million students getting free breakfasts during the average school month.  That was up from 9.20 in fiscal 2011.

In addition to the 9.76 million students who got entirely free breakfasts, there were also 1.04 million who got “reduced-price” breakfasts, and 2.04 million who got federally subsidized “paid” breakfasts.

All in all, in the average school month in fiscal 2012, 12.85 million students had their breakfasts subsidized by the taxpayers.

The full cost of the breakfast program in fiscal 2012 was a record $3,275,600,000.00 up from 3,034,700,000.00 in fiscal 2011.

The initial permanent federal school-lunch program was created by Congress in 1946, according to USDA. Earlier than that in American history, parents were expected to provide their own children with lunch.

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