National School Lunch Program


1. What is the National School Lunch Program? 

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or no-cost lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946. 

About 7.1 million children participated in the NSLP in its first year. Since then, the Program has reached millions of children nationwide: 1970: 22.4 million children; 1980: 26.6 million children; 1990: 21.1 million children; 2000: 27.3 million children; 2010: 31.8 million children; and 2016: 30.4 million children.

2. Who administers the NSLP? 

The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the Program at the Federal level. At the State level, the NSLP is administered by State agencies, which operate the Program through agreements with school food authorities. State agency contact information is available at: 

3. How does the Program work? 

The NSLP is generally operated by public or non-profit private schools of high school grade or below. Public or non-profit private residential child care institutions may also participate in the NSLP, and charter schools may participate in the NSLP as public schools. Participating school districts and independent schools receive cash subsidies and USDA Foods for each reimbursable meal they serve. In exchange, NSLP institutions must serve lunches that meet Federal meal pattern requirements and offer the lunches at a free or reduced price to eligible children. School food authorities can also be reimbursed for snacks served to children who participate in an approved afterschool program including an educational or enrichment activity.” 

4. What are the nutrition requirements for NSLP lunches? 

All NSLP lunches must meet Federal requirements, though decisions about the specific foods to serve and the methods of preparation are made by local school food authorities. Information about the NSLP nutrition standards, along with technical assistance and guidance materials, may be found on the School Meals website: 

5. How can children qualify for free or reduced price school lunch? 

Children may be determined “categorically eligible” for free meals through participation in certain Federal Assistance Programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or based on their status as a homeless, migrant, runaway, or foster child. 

Children enrolled in a federally-funded Head Start Program, or a comparable State-funded pre-kindergarten program, are also categorically eligible for free meals. 

Children can also qualify for free or reduced price school meals based on household income and family size. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the Federal poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the Federal poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals. Schools may not charge children more than 40 cents for a reduced price lunch. To see the current Income Eligibility Guidelines, please visit:

6. What are the current reimbursement rates for participating schools? 

School food authorities are reimbursed for meals based on children’s free, reduced price, or paid eligibility status. For current reimbursement rates, please visit: School food authorities that are certified to be in compliance with the Program meal pattern receive an extra 6 cents for each lunch served. Additionally, schools in Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico are eligible for a higher reimbursement rate, due to the higher cost of food in those areas. 

7. What types of foods do participating schools receive from USDA? 

In addition to cash reimbursements, schools receive USDA Foods. States select USDA Foods for their schools from a list of foods purchased by USDA and provided through the NSLP. Schools can also receive bonus USDA Foods as they are available from surplus agricultural stocks. The variety of USDA Foods schools receive depends on available quantities and market prices. For more information about USDA Foods, please see:

8. What additional support do schools receive from FNS? 

Through its Team Nutrition initiative, FNS provides training and technical assistance to school nutrition professionals to enable them to prepare and serve nutritious meals that meet the Program meal pattern requirements and appeal to children. The Team Nutrition Resource Library has web-based resources available to help children and school nutrition professionals understand the link between diet and health. State and local Program operators may request free printed copies of certain Team Nutrition materials. To learn more, visit: 

FNS is also working to increase the availability of fresh produce in schools. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program introduces children at participating low-income elementary schools to a variety of produce they otherwise might not have the opportunity to taste. In addition, through the Farm to School initiative, FNS helps school food authorities incorporate fresh, local produce into school lunch menus.

9. Where can I go to learn more about the NSLP? 

For more information about the NSLP, please contact the State agency responsible for the administration of the Program in your State: 

Download the Fact Sheet

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service 
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