National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is the Nation's second largest food and nutrition assistance program. In 2016, it operated in over 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools (grades PK-12) and residential child care institutions. The NSLP provided low-cost or free lunches to over 30.4 million children daily at a cost of $13.6 billion.

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 2016, school cafeterias served over 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' foodservice 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 have been updated to more closely match the Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Within their cost constraints, school foodservice programs face continuing challenges to provide healthy and appealing meals that encourage student participation. This is especially true in smaller districts that do not benefit from economies of scale. 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, a new option that allows high-poverty schools to offer free meals to all students. See the report:

The National School Lunch Program Background, Trends, and Issues

ERS research found that offering school lunches with a healthier mix of vegetables, as required by new standards, was associated with higher consumption of these healthy foods. However, the increase in consumption was not very large, because so many children did not eat any of the healthy foods offered. See the report: 

Fruit and Vegetable Consumption by School Lunch Participants: Implications for the Success of New Nutrition Standards

USDA is also encouraging 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 a third—36 percent—of U.S school districts reported serving local foods in the 2011-12 or 2012-13 school years (see "Many U.S. School Districts Serve Local Foods," Amber Waves, March 2015). 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

In 2010, Congressional legislation also mandated updated standards for foods and beverages sold at schools that are not part of the USDA School Meal Programs—sometimes referred to as "competitive foods." With implementation of both updated meal standards and competitive food standards, all foods sold in schools that participate in the NSLP should promote healthy diets. Some schools expressed concern about potential losses in revenue from sales of these foods. ERS researchers found that a subset of school food services obtained more than a third of their revenues from competitive food sales, due to both higher competitive food revenues and lower revenues from USDA school meals. School districts with higher proportions of revenue from competitive foods were typically located in more affluent districts and served fewer low-income students receiving free and reduced-price meals. See the report: 

Nutrition Standards for Competitive Foods in Schools: Implications for Foodservice Revenues