Decline in school lunch participation driven by drops in full- and reduced-price participation

On a typical school day in fiscal year 2018, 29.7 million children participated in USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and USDA expenditures on the program totaled $13.8 billion for the year. These expenditures include cash reimbursements for meals served and the value of foods provided to schools by USDA. In return for the reimbursements and donated foods, schools must serve lunches that meet Federal nutrition requirements and offer these lunches to children from low-income families for free or at a reduced-price. Almost three-quarters (74 percent) of lunches were provided for free or at a reduced-price in 2018. Since 2001, free lunch participation has increased every year, from 12.9 million children in 2001 to 20.2 million in 2018. Over the same period, full-price lunch participation peaked at 12.6 million children in 2007, and reduced-price meal participation peaked at 3.2 million in 2009. Through 2011, overall NSLP participation increased, reaching a high of 31.8 million children, driven by growth in free-meal participation. Since then, declining participation of children receiving reduced- and full-price lunches has led to a drop in overall participation. A longer version of this chart (starting in 1970) appears in the Child Nutrition Programs: Charts topic page on the ERS website.

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