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The National School Lunch Program supports student nutrition in over 101,000 schools and residential facilities. It provides free and reduced priced meals to low-income children before school, during school, after school, and over the summer. In fiscal year 2012, federal school nutrition programs underwrote more than five billion lunches served to over 31 million students. Total funding for all nutrition programs sums to more than $16 billion in both cash and commodity payments. School nutrition programs are one of the largest federal funding streams to schools.


The federal government first became significantly involved in school lunches through the Commodity Donation Program of 1936, which aimed to eliminate price-suppressing crop surpluses by distributing excess commodities to schools for meals for students who could not otherwise afford them.

In 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act to establish permanently a federally funded school lunch program and improve child nutrition. Since then, the law has expanded to include free and reduced priced breakfast, milk, after-school snacks, and summer meals for qualifying students.

Eligibility and Enrollment

In order to have a federally subsidized school lunch program, local school districts must apply to their state department of education for permission. Once the state grants permission, all schools located in the district’s jurisdiction, both public and non-profit private, are eligible to participate. The relevant district or individual school must select an approved school food authority to implement the program. School food authorities are independent, non-profit organizations responsible for providing meals for school lunch programs and determining student eligibility and enrollment. These authorities, which are approved and insured by the states they serve, often provide meals to multiple schools or districts.

Determining Eligibility

The National School Lunch Program is an appropriated entitlement to all eligible children living in the United States regardless of citizenship status.

Students are entitled to free lunches if their families’ incomes are below 130 percent of the annual income poverty level guideline established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and updated annually by the Census Bureau (currently $21,756 for a family of four). Children who are members of households receiving food stamp benefits or cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, as well as homeless, runaway, and migrant children, also qualify for free meals.

Students with family incomes below 185 percent of poverty are eligible for a reduced price lunch. Schools cannot charge children who receive reduced price lunches more than 40 cents per meal, but each school food authority sets the exact student contribution level independently. Students who do not qualify for free or reduced price lunch can purchase slightly subsidized meals, but these lunches are considered “paid” because the student shoulders most of the cost. The lunch program subsidizes each “paid” meal between 23 and 25 cents to offset administrative costs.

Of the five billion meals provided to 31 million students during the 2011-12 school year, 59 percent were free of charge, 9 percent were reduced price, and the other 33 percent were paid.

Children can be enrolled in the school lunch program in two ways. Parents can apply for the program by submitting information about their total household incomes through a simple application the school district provides.

 National School Lunch Program

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Alternatively, children can be automatically enrolled through a process known as “direct certification.” Under the direct certification process, state agencies or school food authorities obtain lists of families enrolled in the Food Stamp program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (i.e. welfare) program and match those lists with the names of students enrolled in schools the agency serves. As of 2008-09, all school districts have been required to directly certify students enrolled in the Food Stamp program. This change has increased access to free and reduced price lunches and limited the potential for error or over-enrollment by automatically enrolling students rather than relying on parent applications.

Free and Reduced Price Lunch as an Indicator of Poverty

Researchers often use free or reduced price lunch (FRPL) enrollment figures as a proxy for poverty at the school level, because Census poverty data (which is used at the state and district level) is not available disaggregated below the school district level and is not collected annually. Accordingly, annual FRPL data is regularly used within school districts to determine a school’s eligibility for Title I funds. It is also used as a proxy for low-income status when determining whether a subgroup of needy students is making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind.

While FRPL data is generally a reliable poverty indicator in the elementary grades, it is less so in the high school grades. Because free and reduced price lunch is an opt-in program at the majority of schools, researchers believe that high school students are greatly under-represented in school lunch program enrollment. High school students may refuse to enroll in FRPL due to a perceived stigma attached to the program. In part because FRPL participation is an unreliable proxy for poverty at the high school level, high schools receive disproportionately lower levels of No Child Left Behind funding.

Funding & Distribution

Federal Contribution

The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, distributes school lunch grant funds to states. State school lunch grants are based on the number of meals of each type distributed within the state in the previous fiscal year (free, reduced price, and paid lunch, as well as milk, snacks, and breakfast) multiplied by the federally set reimbursement rate for each type of meal.

In order to receive federal funding for school lunch programs, states are required to contribute matching funds equal to 30 percent of the federal funds they received in 1980. Because the matching funds are frozen at 1980 levels, state required contributions are often very small relative to the federal reimbursement level. There is an exception for states with per capita income below the national per capita income, however. For these states, the required match is decreased by the percentage by which the State per capita income is below the per capita income of the United States. For example, if Texas’ per capita income were 2 percentage points lower than the national per capita income, Texas would be required to match 28 percent of school lunch funding rather than 30 percent.

States use federal funds to reimburse local school food authorities, on a monthly or quarterly basis, based on their records of lunches served in the previous month or quarter. The total amount of reimbursement a school food authority receives is calculated by multiplying the number of lunches of each type provided (free, reduced price, or paid) by the federally set reimbursement rates. School food authorities that serve jurisdictions where 60 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch are allotted an additional two cents per meal.

In addition to school lunches, milk, snacks, and breakfasts, some school food authorities provide commodity foods, such as apples and oranges, to schools that request them, and also receive an added subsidy. These commodities are currently reimbursed at a rate of22.75 cents each.1

Reimbursement rates 2 are updated at the beginning of each fiscal year based on the Consumer Price Index value for Food Away from Home for All Urban Consumers:

Reimbursement Rates, 2012-13 School Year

National School Lunch Program
Less Than 60% Qualified
60% Or More Qualified
Reduced Price2.462.48

Trends in School Lunch Spending and Participation

In fiscal year 2012, 70.0 percent of federal school lunch funds financed school lunches and snacks, while 22.0 percent financed school breakfasts, 7.8 percent financed optional commodities, and less than one percent financed school milk programs. The National School Lunch Program is the second largest nutritional assistance program in the nation after the Food Stamp program.

 National School Lunch Program

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

From 1977 to 2012, total federal expenditures on the National School Lunch Program increased from $5.9 billion to more than $10 billion annually.3 Over the same period of time, participation in the meal programs increased by just over 5 million from 26.2 million to 31.6 million students. School lunch – and to a certain extent, breakfast – spending has primarily driven the expenditure increases due to a higher number of students enrolled in fully subsidized meal programs. In contrast, spending on milk has remained relatively flat.

 National School Lunch Program

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Nutrition & Health

The school lunch program includes nutrition requirements for all subsidized meals. These requirements specify the amount of calories, fat, and nutrients needed in a meal depending on the age of the student consuming it. However, fewer than 30% of schools meet the existing nutrition requirements. In addition to lessening hunger for low-income students during school hours, the program has also successfully limited malnutrition and increased the intake of key nutrients for the target population.

Despite these benefits, the safety, cost, and health of meals served by the school nutrition programs have come under some scrutiny. For example, a recent recall of beef from a major school lunch provider revealed school lunch programs’ reliance on cheap, processed food over more pricey fresh fruits and vegetables. Critics of school meal programs also believe that the nutrition requirements are contributing to childhood obesity. They have called for changes in the legal fat and calorie allowances and encouraged school districts to reassess their recipes to increase the healthfulness of their school lunches. In spite of these efforts, limited funds for school meals are negatively affecting any advances, especially as food prices rise.

1 The Department of Agriculture also donates commodity foods to schools in times of crop surpluses.
2 Reimbursement rates are slightly higher for Hawaii and Alaska.
3 Adjusted for inflation with 2012 as the base year. Spending on after-school snack is included in the school lunch category.