Nutrition and Schools

The National School Lunch Program supports student nutrition in over 101,000 schools and residential facilities. It provides free and reduced priced meals to low-income children before school, during school, after school, and over the summer. In fiscal year 2013, federal school nutrition programs underwrote more than five billion lunches served to nearly 31 million students. Total funding for all nutrition programs sums to $16.3 billion in both cash and commodity payments in fiscal year 2014. School nutrition programs are one of the largest federal funding streams to schools.

The federal government first became significantly involved in school lunches through the Commodity Donation Program of 1936, which aimed to eliminate price-suppressing crop surpluses by distributing excess commodities to schools for meals for students who could not otherwise afford them. In 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act to establish permanently a federally funded school lunch program and improve child nutrition. Since then, the law has expanded to include free and reduced priced breakfast, milk, after-school snacks, and summer meals for qualifying students.

Eligibility and Enrollment

In order to have a federally subsidized school lunch program, local school districts must apply to their state department of education for permission. Once the state grants permission, all schools located in the district’s jurisdiction are eligible to participate.

FRPL as an Indicator of Poverty

Researchers often use free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) enrollment figures as a proxy for poverty at the school level, because Census poverty data is not available disaggregated below the school district level and is not collected annually.

Funding Distribution

State school lunch grants are based on the number of meals of each type distributed within the state in the previous fiscal year multiplied by the federally set reimbursement rate for each type of meal.

Spending and Participation Trends

The National School Lunch Program is the second largest nutritional assistance program in the nation after the Food Stamp program.

Nutrition and Health

The school lunch program includes nutrition requirements for all subsidized meals. These requirements specify the amount of calories, fat, and nutrients needed in a meal depending on the age of the student consuming it.