National School Lunch Program
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is typically the Nation's second largest food and nutrition assistance program. NSLP operates in nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools (grades PK-12) and residential child care institutions. On average, the NSLP provided low-cost or free lunches to 29.6 million children each school day in fiscal year (FY) 2019, at a total cost of $14.2 billion.
In FY 2020, NSLP participation averaged 22.6 million children each school day and total expenditures on the program amounted to $10.4 billion. These declines are attributable to disruptions in the program’s operations in the second half of FY 2020 due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which forced the closure of many schools and child care institutions beginning in March. In response to these disruptions and to meet rising food needs during the pandemic, USDA issued waivers allowing for flexibilities in the implementation of the NSLP and expanding the scope and coverage of the program’s Seamless Summer Option (SSO). Overall, about 3.2 billion meals were served through the NSLP or SSO, 33.4 percent fewer than in FY 2019.
USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers the NSLP and reimburses participating schools and residential child care institutions for the meals served to students. Any student in a participating school can get an NSLP lunch. Students from households with incomes:
- At or below 130 percent of the Federal poverty line can receive a free lunch.
- Between 130 and 185 percent of the Federal poverty line can receive a reduce-price lunch.
- Above 185 of the Federal poverty line can receive a low cost full-price lunch.
In FY 2020, 76.9 percent of all NSLP meals were served free or at a reduced price, about 2.7 percentage points more than in the previous fiscal year. ERS-sponsored research found that children from food-insecure and marginally food-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. To learn more, please see:
Participation in USDA’s Child Nutrition Programs, including NSLP, have been found to reduce food insecurity. To learn more about the impact of NSLP on food insecurity, please see:
Meals served through NSLP must meet Federal nutrition standards, which were updated in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to more closely match the Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The legislation also authorized an additional 6-cent payment per meal to schools when they demonstrated that they were serving meals that met the updated standards and established new regulations for meal prices charged to students not certified for free or reduced-price meals. To learn more about the new standards and how schools strive to provide healthy and appealing meals that encourage student participation, please see:
- School Meals in Transition
- USDA School Meal Programs: How and Why the Cost of Food Purchases Varies Across Locales
In response to concerns about the role of the school meal environment in children's diets and other issues, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 also established updated nutrition standards for non-USDA foods sold in schools (often called "competitive foods") participating in USDA's school meal programs. The Act also created the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), an option that allows high-poverty schools to offer free meals to all students. To learn more about CEP, please see:
- Characteristics of School Districts Offering Free School Meals to All Students Through the Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program
USDA also encourages 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 4 in 10 U.S school districts reported participating in farm-to-school activities, which includes serving local foods, in the 2013-14 or 2014-15 school years. To learn more about the characteristics of school districts likely to serve local foods, please see:
All figures are based on data available as of January 2021 and are subject to revision.
For the latest information on updates to the program during the COVID-19 pandemic, see FNS Responds to COVID-19.
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