The percentage of a school’s students participating in the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program gives you a general idea of how many students come from low-income families.

The National School Lunch Program reimburses schools for breakfast, lunch, and snacks served to children whose families might not otherwise be able to afford nutritious food. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level (currently $27,560 for a family of four) are eligible for free meals. Children from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the poverty level (currently $39,220 for a family of four) are eligible for discounted meals.

The goal of the program is to ensure that all students get enough to eat. A child who is hungry is not going to learn in the classroom. Enrollment in the school lunch program is voluntary, and some students who are eligible do not enroll, often because they or their families are embarrassed.

It’s important not to judge a school solely on the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. Schools with more kids from low-income families are often innovative and staffed with motivated and caring teachers. And such schools often have active, successful parent groups.

The percentage of kids participating in the National School Lunch Program should be considered just one aspect of a school. Test scores, strength of the parent organization, teachers’ experience, and other indicators are all part of each school’s unique character. Read “How To Choose a New School” for more complete information on finding the right school for your child.