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Image: Food Nutrition & Assistance

National School Lunch Program

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The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is the Nation's second largest food and nutrition assistance program. In 2014, it operated in over 99,000 public and nonprofit private schools (grades K-12) and residential child care institutions. The NSLP provided low-cost or free lunches to over 30.3 million children daily at a cost of nearly $12.6 billion.

Any student in a participating school can get an NSLP lunch regardless of the student's household income. Eligible students can receive free or reduced-price lunches:

  • Free lunches are available to children in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of poverty
  • Reduced-price lunches are available to children in households with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of poverty.

In 2014, school cafeterias served almost 5 billion lunches, over two-thirds of them free or at a reduced price. ERS-sponsored research found that children from food-insecure and marginally secure households were more likely to eat school meals and received more of their food and nutrient intake from school meals than did other children (see Children's Food Security and Intakes from School Meals: Final Report).

Little boy sitting at a table eating a saladUSDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers the NSLP and reimburses participating schools' foodservice departments for the meals served to students. Meals are required to meet nutrition standards; as part of the changes required by Congressional reauthorization of the program in 2010, NSLP nutrition standards have been updated to more closely match the Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The legislation authorized an additional 6-cent payment for each meal when schools demonstrated that they were serving meals that met the new standards.

ERS research found that offering school lunches with a healthier mix of vegetables, as required by new standards, was associated with higher consumption of these healthy foods (see Fruit and Vegetable Consumption by School Lunch Participants: Implications for the Success of New Nutrition Standards). However, the increase in consumption was not very large, because so many children did not eat any of the healthy foods offered.

ERS is conducting and sponsoring behavioral economics research to identify strategies to encourage children's acceptance of these healthier meals (see "Eating Better at School: Can New Policies Improve Children’s Food Choices?"). USDA is also encouraging school districts to use locally-produced foods in school meals and to use "farm-to-school" activities to spark students' interest in trying new foods. More than a third—36 percent—of U.S school districts reported serving local foods in the 2011-12 or 2012-13 school years (see "Many U.S. School Districts Serve Local Foods").

In 2010, Congressional legislation also mandated updated standards for foods and beverages sold at schools that are not part of the USDA School Meal Programs—sometimes referred to as "competitive foods." With implementation of both updated meal standards and competitive food standards, all foods sold in schools that participate in the NSLP should promote healthy diets. Some schools expressed concern about potential losses in revenue from sales of these foods. ERS researchers found that a subset of school foodservices obtained more than a third of their revenues from competitive food sales, due to both higher competitive food revenues and lower revenues from USDA school meals (see Nutrition Standards for Competitive Foods in Schools: Implications for Foodservice Revenues). School districts with higher proportions of revenue from competitive foods were typically located in more affluent districts and served fewer low-income students receiving free and reduced-price meals.

Last updated: Wednesday, April 15, 2015

For more information contact: Joanne Guthrie