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Image: Food Nutrition & Assistance

National School Lunch Program

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The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is the Nation's second largest food and nutrition assistance program. In 2012, it operated in over 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools (grades K-12) and residential child care institutions. The NSLP provided low-cost or free lunches to over 31.6 million children daily at a cost of $11.6 billion.

Any student in a participating school can get an NSLP lunch regardless of the student's household income. Eligible students can receive free or reduced-price lunches:

  • Free lunches are available to children in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of poverty
  • Reduced-price lunches are available to children in households with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of poverty.

In 2012, school cafeterias served more than 5 billion lunches, about two-thirds of them free or at a reduced price. ERS-sponsored research found that children from food-insecure and marginally secure households were more likely to eat school meals and received more of their food and nutrient intake from school meals than did other children (see Children's Food Security and Intakes from School Meals: Final Report).

Little boy sitting at a table eating a saladUSDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers the NSLP and reimburses participating schools' foodservice departments for the meals served to students. Meals are required to meet nutrition standards; as part of changes required by Congressional reauthorization of the program in 2010, NSLP nutrition standards have been updated to more closely match the Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

ERS researchers have examined important issues, background, and trends in the NSLP and found that the program faces numerous challenges (see The National School Lunch Program: Background, Trends, and Issues). Program administrators strive to balance competing objectives:

Last updated: Friday, July 26, 2013

For more information contact: Joanne Guthrie