National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is the Nation's second largest food and nutrition assistance program. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, it operated in nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools (grades PK-12) and residential child care institutions. The NSLP provided low-cost or free lunches to 29.4 million children daily at a total cost of $14.1 billion. Average participation was less than 1 percent below that of the previous FY and about 8 percent lower than in FY 2011, when average participation peaked at 31.8 million children.

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 FY 2019, school cafeterias served nearly 5 billion lunches, with nearly three-quarters of the lunches 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).

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers the NSLP and reimburses participating schools' food service 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 were updated to more closely match the Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Within their cost constraints, school food service programs face continuing challenges to provide healthy and appealing meals that encourage student participation. This is especially true in smaller districts and certain regions that face higher food costs. See the reports:

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 established updated nutrition standards for school meals and for non-USDA foods (often called "competitive foods") sold at schools participating in USDA's school meal programs. The legislation authorized an additional 6-cent payment for each meal when schools demonstrated that they were serving meals that met the new standards; the legislation also established new regulations for meal prices charged to students not certified for free or reduced-price meals. The Act also created the Community Eligibility Provision, an option that allows high-poverty schools to offer free meals to all students. See the report:

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. A recent ERS study found that school districts with enrollment above 5,000 students, urban districts, and districts located in counties with a higher density of farmers' markets were more likely to serve local foods daily. Higher-income districts, those districts with higher levels of college attendance, and districts in States with more legislated policies supporting farm-to-school programs were also more likely to serve local foods daily. See the report:

Daily Access to Local Foods for School Meals: Key Drivers