The share of children receiving free school lunches and breakfasts rose between 2009 and 2019

This bar chart shows the number of children receiving a school meal on a typical school day for fiscal years 2009 and 2019. The meals are specifically the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program.

In 2019, before the spring 2020 school closings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 29 million children participated in USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and close to 15 million participated in the School Breakfast Program (SBP) on a typical school day. Children are certified to receive free or reduced-price meals — or they pay full price — based on their families’ incomes. Between 2009 and 2019, the number of children receiving free lunches was offset by a drop in reduced- and full-price meal participation. As a result, total NSLP participation declined by about 2 million, with free lunch participation making up 68 percent of total participation in 2019, compared with 52 percent in 2009. Over the same decade, free breakfast participation rose by 3.7 million and full-price breakfast participation rose by 0.2 million. This offset the 0.4-million decline in reduced-price breakfast participation, resulting in a 3.5-million increase in total SBP participation. In both 2009 and 2019, SBP served primarily students from low-income households, with 72 percent of participants receiving free breakfast in 2009 and 80 percent in 2019. This chart appears in “Free School Lunch, Breakfast Participation Rose Between 2009 and 2019” in the Economic Research Service’s Amber Waves magazine, October 2020.

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