National School Lunch Program

2014-2015 Participation:

  • 30.5 million children in more than 98,413 schools and residential child care institutions participated on a typical day.
  • 21.5 million of these children received free and reduced-price lunch.

2016-17 School Year Federal Reimbursement Rates:

  • Free Lunches: $3.16
  • Reduced Price Lunches: $2.76
  • Paid Lunches: $0.30
  • Alaska and Hawaii receive higher rates.
  • Schools in which 60 percent or more of the second preceding school year lunches were served free or reduced price receive an additional $.02 reimbursement for each free, reduced price, or paid meal served.

Download Income Guidelines and Reimbursement Rates for the Federal Child Nutrition Programs (pdf)


The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) makes it possible for all school children in the United States to receive a nutritious lunch every school day.

NSLP provides per meal cash reimbursements to schools as an entitlement to provide nutritious meals to children. This means that all eligible schools can participate and all children attending those schools can participate. Schools participating in NSLP also receive agricultural commodities (unprocessed or partially processed foods) as a supplement to the per-meal cash reimbursements, in amounts based on the number of lunches they serve.

How Children Benefit

USDA research indicates that children who participate in School Lunch have superior nutritional intakes compared to those who do not participate.

Congress created the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) after an investigation into the health of young men rejected in the World War II draft showed a connection between physical deficiencies and childhood malnutrition. In response, Congress enacted the 1946 National School Lunch Act as a “measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.”

In 1998, Congress expanded the NSLP to include cash reimbursement for snacks served in certain afterschool educational and enrichment programs.

School Lunch Program Nutrition Guidelines

The National School Lunch Program provides school children with one-third or more of their Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for key nutrients. These lunches are required to provide no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat.

Every school district that participates in the National School Lunch Program was required to enact a local school wellness policy, an opportunity to address obesity and promote healthy eating and physical activity through changes in school environments.

Reimbursement and Funding

Alaska and Hawaii receive higher reimbursement rates. For schools where 60 percent or more of the second preceding school year lunches were served free or reduced price, an additional $.02 reimbursement is given for each free, reduced price, or paid meal served.

In FY 2011, federal spending totaled $10.1 billion for the National School Lunch Program. This federal support comes in the form of a cash reimbursement for each meal served.

Community Eligibility Option

Community Eligibility allows schools with high numbers of low-income children to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students without collecting school meal applications or tracking eligibility in the cafeteria. This option increases participation by children in the school meal programs, while schools reduce labor costs and increase their federal revenues, allowing for a healthier student body and a healthier school meal budget. A formula based on the number of students certified without the need for paper applications (called “Identified Students”) is the basis for reimbursements instead of paper applications. Any school building can use this option when 40 percent or more students are certified for free meals without a paper application based on their status as in foster care, Head Start, homeless, migrant, or living in households that receive SNAP/Food Stamps, TANF cash assistance or FDPIR benefits. See the Community Eligibility page for more information.

Provision 2

Download the fact sheet Provision 2 of the National School Lunch Act (pdf)

Provision 2 is an option that enables schools and institutions to provide free meals to all of their students while reducing paperwork and administrative costs. While any school that participates in the National School Lunch Program or the School Breakfast Program may opt for Provision 2, generally schools with high percentages of low-income students (75 percent or more) are able to utilize this option. Under Provision 2, all students receive free meals, regardless of income, and schools collect applications for free and reduced-price meals once every four years, at most. Also, schools under Provision 2 do not have to track and record the different categories of meals served for at least three out of every four years. Provision 2 schools pay the difference between the cost of serving meals at no charge to all students and the federal reimbursement for the meals.

School nutrition programs should contact their State Agencies for assistance on how to implement Provision 2 in some or all of their schools.