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, both public and non-profit private, are eligible to participate. The relevant district or individual school must select an approved school food authority to implement the program. School food authorities are independent, non-profit organizations responsible for providing meals for school lunch programs and determining student eligibility and enrollment. These authorities, which are approved and insured by the states they serve, often provide meals to multiple schools or districts.
The National School Lunch Program is an appropriated entitlement to all eligible children living in the United States regardless of citizenship status. Students are entitled to free lunches if their families’ incomes are below 130 percent of the annual income poverty level guideline established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and updated annually by the Census Bureau (currently $23,850 for a family of four). Children who are members of households receiving food stamp benefits or cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, as well as homeless, runaway, and migrant children, also qualify for free meals.
Students with family incomes below 185 percent of poverty are eligible for a reduced price lunch. Schools cannot charge children who receive reduced price lunches more than 40 cents per meal, but each school food authority sets the exact student contribution level independently. Students who do not qualify for free or reduced price lunch can purchase slightly subsidized meals, but these lunches are considered “paid” because the student shoulders most of the cost. The lunch program subsidizes each “paid” meal between 23 and 25 cents to offset administrative costs.
Of the 31 million students who received five billion meals during the 2013-14 school year, 62 percent were free of charge, 8 percent were reduced price, and the other 30 percent were paid.
Children can be enrolled in the school lunch program in two ways. Parents can apply for the program by submitting information about their total household incomes through a simple application the school district provides.
Alternatively, children can be automatically enrolled through a process known as “direct certification.” Under the direct certification process, state agencies or school food authorities obtain lists of families enrolled in the Food Stamp program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (i.e. welfare) program and match those lists with the names of students enrolled in schools the agency serves. As of 2008-09, all school districts have been required to directly certify students enrolled in the Food Stamp program. This change has increased access to free and reduced price lunches and limited the potential for error or over-enrollment by automatically enrolling students rather than relying on parent applications.
A separate provision included in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act permits another route to participation in the program: community eligibility. Under that program, students no longer have to apply for free and reduced-price lunch eligibility. Eligible schools (those with 30 to 40 percent "identified students," including students whose families receive welfare benefits, children enrolled in Head Start, or students who are homeless or in foster care) may be reimbursed directly, and all children in the school may receive free breakfast and lunch. The percentage of meals reimbursed is calculated as the number of identified students in the school, multiplied by 1.6. The 2014-15 school year will be the first time all eligible schools may enroll.