National School Lunch Program 101

Lunch Program 101

Whether you and your kids attend(ed) public school, private school, or homeschool, I think we can all agree that it is a comfort to know a free basic education is the right of every child in America. Public schools in America offer more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic. Counseling services, career guidance, and physical exercise are also offered up free of charge. Additionally, during the school day the kids are fed lunch. Like choosing private or homeschool instead of public, parents can choose to pack a lunch for their kids instead of taking the hot meal. And like the public school option, it is comforting to know that a free basic lunch is available to those who cannot otherwise afford to eat.

The United States federal government instituted the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in 1946. The USDA website does a nice job describing what they do, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. Here is what they said:

Generally, public or nonprofit private schools of high school grade or under and public or nonprofit private residential child care institutions may participate in the school lunch program. School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the lunch program get cash subsidies and USDA foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet Federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children. School food authorities can also be reimbursed for snacks served to children through age 18 in afterschool educational or enrichment programs.

Take a deep breath in, push aside the politics, and exhale. Here is the stone cold bottom line. For many kids in America, that free school lunch is the ONLY food they will get today. That’s sobering. Their bodies and minds are growing like weeds, and a bare bones cafeteria lunch provided by the government is the only thing they can count on.

There is a movement right now of chefs, nutritionists, moms, etc. who are working on improving the nutrient density of those cafeteria meals. I’m not going to go into detail on the movement, but I’m attaching a few resources from different perspectives so you can look into that and get involved if you’re so inclined.

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine – “Healthy School Lunches: National School Lunch Reform”
School Nutrition Association – The org representing the people who provide the food to the schools
Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver’s School Food Revolution
Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign – dedicated to get kids more active as well as reforming school lunches

What I am going to do is give you the basic information on the NSLP, and information on how you can apply for free or reduced price lunches if your kids need them.

31 million American kids eat school cafeteria lunches each day (2012 statistic). Families with an income at or above 185% of the poverty level (over $43,568/year for a family of four) pay “full price” (the already subsidized price established by the school). Families below 130% of the poverty level (currently under $30,615/year for a family of four) receive free lunches. Families with an income in between the two get a reduced price. In 1966 the School Breakfast Program was added. The qualification process and income guidelines are the same for both programs, though not all schools offer breakfast.

The National School Lunch Program cost $11.6 billion in 2012, and the School Breakfast Program cost $3 billion (the breakfast program has fewer participants). Both are funded and administered by the federal government. For more information on these programs, visit the USDA Food and Nutrition Services site HERE. To apply for free or reduced price lunches for your kids, pick up an application form at their school or on the school’s website. The experience of getting lunch in the cafeteria on a given day is no different for the kids who get free/reduced price lunch than it is for the kids whose parents pay full price, so you don’t have to worry that your child will be singled out or embarrassed.

From the years when my husband served on the PTO board of J’s elementary school, I know that parents who can’t/don’t send lunch money and don’t apply for the free/reduced subsidy are a huge drain on the school. The school feeds the kids anyway, (how could they not?) but they are forced to eat the cost (no pun intended). So please, please, please, if you can’t afford school lunches for your kids, send a bag lunch or fill out the paperwork. Don’t leave our already strapped schools to pick up the check.

10 thoughts on “National School Lunch Program 101

    1. According to the NSLP website, the National School Lunch Program provides meals through public schools, nonprofit private schools, and residential childcare institutions, so it doesn’t look like they offer anything to homeschool kids. Good question!

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