The National School Lunch Program — the nation’s second largest food and nutrition assistance program behind SNAP — makes it possible for all school children in the United States to receive a nutritious lunch every school day. The vast majority of schools — approximately 95 percent — participate in the program, providing meals to more than 30 million children on an average day.
How did participation in school breakfast and lunch change pre-pandemic and during the pandemic?
FRAC’s 2022 School Breakfast and School Lunch Report found student participation in school breakfast and lunch dropped dramatically across the country when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and school nutrition programs are still recovering.
As the country approaches the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, school meals are at a critical crossroads. Now is the time to consider the role that
these programs have played — and should play — in supporting children’s health and well-being moving forward, and ensure they not only regain lost ground but also grow to fully meet children’s nutritional needs.
Take a Fresh Look at Community Eligibility for 2020-2021
The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows more than 30,000 high-poverty schools across the country to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students while eliminating the traditional school meal application process. As COVID-19 impacts millions nationwide, more students than ever will need access to free school meals.
New Research Brief Shows That School Breakfast and Lunch Programs Continue to Have Multiple Positive Effects on Students’ Health, Learning, and Well-Being
School Meals are Essential for Student Health and Learning reviews the many benefits of the school meals programs, and summarizes the latest research on recent policy changes and innovative strategies that are increasing program access and improving student outcomes.
New Report Highlights the Need for a National Approach to End School Meals Debt
Unpaid School Meal Fees: A Review of 50 Districts’ Policies highlights the varying practices included in districts’ unpaid meals policies, and provides a roadmap for Congress to develop a national policy.
- Nearly 22 million low-income children participated in the National School Lunch Program on a typical day in the 2017-2018 school year.
- Nearly 97,000 schools participated in the National School Lunch Program in the 2017-2018 school year.
- Any public school, nonprofit private school, or residential child care institution can participate in the program and receive federal funds for each meal served.
- Meals served through the National School Lunch Program meet federal nutrition standards, which require schools to serve more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- The program is administered at the federal level by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and in each state typically through the state department of education or agriculture.
Reducing Barriers to Consuming School Meals
Too many students miss out on the important benefits of school lunch when barriers exist that prevent students from consuming all of their meal. This report includes best practices for school districts to maximize student participation and consumption in school meals.
More Low-Income Students Receive Free School Meals in the 2018–2019 School Year Through Community Eligibility
Community Eligibility: The Key to Hunger-Free Schools finds that the number of schools participating in community eligibility grew by 14 percent compared to the 2018–2019 school year, with 64.2 percent of eligible schools participating. Nearly 13.6 million children in 28,492 schools and 4,633 school districts are participating and have access to school breakfast and lunch at no charge.
- Benefits of School LunchA wide body of research supports the health and educational benefits of participation in the National School Lunch Program. Studies show that participation in school lunch reduces food insecurity, obesity rates, and poor health. Find out more about the benefits of school lunch participation.
- Eligibility and ReimbursementsLow-income children are eligible to receive meals for free or at a reduced price based on their household income or participation in other government programs like SNAP or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Children from moderate to higher-income households pay the school lunch fee set by the school district. Find out more about school meal eligibility and how children are certified for free and reduced-price school meals.
- Community Eligibility ProvisionCommunity eligibility allows high-poverty schools and districts to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students. Schools that use community eligibility have seen increases in participation in school breakfast and school lunch and reduced administrative costs as community eligibility schools no longer have to collect school meals applications. Find out more about the Community Eligibility Provision.
- Unpaid School Meal FeesSchool breakfast and lunch provide students the nutrition they need in order to continue to learn throughout the school day. Students certified for reduced-price meals can be charged a maximum of 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch, and those who are not certified for free or reduced-price school meals, generally are charged the cost of their meal. When students who are not certified for free school meals arrive in the cafeteria without cash in hand or in their school meal account, they can start to accrue school meal debt. School meal debt is a challenge for the majority of school districts — a recent school nutrition report found that 3 in 4 school districts had unpaid school meal debt. For more information on unpaid school meal fees, refer to these FRAC resources
- Every Student Succeeds ActThe Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers important opportunities for anti-hunger advocates to increase participation in the federal nutrition programs, particularly the school, summer, and afterschool nutrition programs. These programs are critical education supports, ensuring that students are well-nourished and able to focus, concentrate, and learn. Increasing student participation in these programs can help State Education Agencies (SEAs) and Local Education Agencies (LEAs — more commonly referred to as school districts) meet the goals of ESSA.