The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) runs in both public and private schools, offering balanced meals every school day. Federal child nutrition initiatives like NSLP combat child hunger and foster good nutrition.

From above side view of crop unrecognizable ethnic schoolkid at table with lunch container full of tasty food

With over 20% of children in the U.S. living in food-insecure homes, NSLP is vital for the healthy development and educational outcomes of low-income children.

Who Qualifies?

The National School Lunch Program guarantees reimbursement for each qualifying meal or snack served.

Low-income children can receive free or reduced-price meals at school. Children from households earning below 130% of the poverty level or those on SNAP or TANF qualify for free meals. Families with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty line qualify for reduced-price meals. During summer, the Summer Food Service Program ensures kids continue to get nutritious meals.

94% of Feeding America client households with school-aged kids participate in the NSLP.

How NSLP Works?

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service oversees the NSLP federally. At the state level, it’s managed by state agencies in partnership with school authorities. Schools get cash reimbursements for each meal or snack served, plus USDA food donations for lunches. NSLP meals must provide a third of the daily needs for calories, protein, calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin E. A 2012 USDA study scored NSLP meals at 77.2 on the Healthy Eating Index, much higher than the 55.0 score for the average American child’s diet.

Advantages of the Program:

Reduces Food Insecurity

  • One estimate based on national data suggests that receiving free or reduced-price school lunches lowers food insecurity by at least 3.8 percent.
  • For a group of low-income kids starting kindergarten, getting a free or reduced-price school lunch lowers the chance of household food insecurity at school entry, while paying full price for lunch is linked to a higher chance of household food insecurity.
  • During summer, children face higher rates of food insecurity because they lack access to the nutritious meals provided by school programs during the academic year.

Improves Dietary Intake

  • Kids who take part in school meal programs tend to avoid nutrient gaps and are more likely to eat fruits, veggies, and milk during breakfast and lunch.
  • Low-income students consuming both school breakfast and lunch have markedly better overall diet quality compared to their peers who skip school meals.
  • The updated school meal nutrition guidelines are benefiting student food choices and intake, notably for fruits and veggies.
  • According to a study conducted after the new school meal nutrition standards were implemented, home-packed lunches for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students contain more calories, fat, saturated fat, and sugar, but less protein, fiber, vitamin A, and calcium compared to school lunches.
  • Very few home-packed lunches and snacks comply with National School Lunch Program standards.

Positively Impacts Health and Obesity Rates

  • Engagement in federally-supported child care nutrition or school meal programs in child care, preschool, school, or summer settings is linked to a notably lower body mass index (BMI) among young, low-income children. Researchers have concluded that “subsidized meals at school or day care positively affect children’s weight status, suggesting that increasing access to subsidized meals could be the most effective strategy to fight obesity in low-income children.”
  • According to data from the country, economists approximate that getting a school lunch at no cost or a reduced price lowers obesity rates by at least 17 percent.
  • According to national data, the provision of complimentary or discounted school meals diminishes instances of ill health by a minimum of 29 percent.

Meeting Children’s Nutritional Needs Leads to a Better Learning Environment

  • Children and adolescents experiencing hunger often face increased occurrences of behavioral, emotional, and mental health challenges, as well as academic difficulties.
  • Adolescents and kids facing hunger tend to perform worse in math and earn lower grades.
  • Kids who go hungry often show signs of hyperactivity, absenteeism, and lateness, alongside frequent behavioral and attention issues compared to their well-fed peers.
  • Adolescents facing hunger tend to have higher rates of school suspension and struggle with social interactions among peers.
  • Kids facing hunger often face academic setbacks like repeating grades, needing special education, or seeking mental health support, setting them apart from low-income peers who don’t experience hunger.
, The National School Lunch Program – What is it, Qualification, Benefits, Days of a Domestic Dad