USDA’s National School Lunch Program served about 224 billion meals from 1971 through 2021

A bar graph showing the total lunches served by the National School Lunch Program combined with a line graph showing the percent that was free or reduced price for fiscal years 1971 to 2021.

The USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was permanently authorized as a Child Nutrition Program in 1946. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, the program served about 29.6 million children each school day across 97,127 schools and residential childcare institutions. Any student in a participating school can get an NSLP lunch. Depending on their household’s income, students may be eligible for either a free, reduced-price, or full-price lunch. Students can receive a free lunch if their household’s income is at or below 130 percent of the Federal poverty line (FPL), a reduced-price lunch if their household’s income is between 130 and 185 percent of the FPL, and a full-price lunch if their household’s income is above 185 percent of the FPL. From 1971 through FY 2021, the program has served about 224.0 billion lunches. Of these meals, 126.4 billion were served for free or at a reduced price. The onset of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in March 2020 interrupted the operations of many schools, disrupting the provision of lunches through the NSLP in FY 2020 and FY 2021. As a result, about 3.2 billion lunches were served through the program in FY 2020 and 2.2 billion in FY 2021, fewer than the 4.9 billion served in FY 2019. This drop reflects the use of a USDA pandemic waiver allowing schools to serve meals through the Summer Food Service Program instead of the NSLP and the creation of the temporary Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program, which reimbursed eligible families for the value of school meals missed because of pandemic-related disruptions to in-person school attendance. A higher share of the meals served in FY 2020 and FY 2021 were served free or at a reduced-price, attributable in large part to a USDA pandemic waiver allowing for meals to be provided free of charge to all students. This chart appears on the USDA, Economic Research Service’s National School Lunch Program page on the Child Nutrition Programs topic page.

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