What is the National School Lunch Program?

boy with plate of food Looking for a way to expose students to healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables and whole grains? Concerned about student academic performance? Consider the National School Lunch Program (NSLP)!

The National School Lunch Program provides nutritious and low-cost or free lunches for U.S. schoolchildren. Eligible schools and child care facilities (public, private or residential) provide the program. The state education agency usually administers NSLP.  Healthy school lunches contribute to the overall diet quality of student’s diets.

There are three kinds of meals students may be eligible for: free meals, reduced price lunches and full price (paid) meals. Children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price lunches. Students can be charged no more than 40 cents for reduced-price lunches. Children from families with incomes over 185% of poverty pay a full price (paid) for lunch. Local schools set their own prices for full-price meals. Most schools provide an application form at the beginning of the school year. In some states, if a family currently participates in the Food Stamp Program (also known as SNAP in some states – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) submission of an application is not required. This is called ‘direct certification.’ Contact your local school or search online for your state’s education agency for more information.

A 2012 USDA study found that the foods provided as part of school lunch were healthier than those in the average child’s diet. Starting with the school year 2012-2013, school meals include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains providing students with one-third of the daily calorie, protein, calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin E children need.


Ellen Schuster, MS, RD, University of Missouri Extension


National School Lunch Program fact sheet

National School Lunch Program

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Nutrient and MyPyramid Analysis of USDA Foods in Five of Its Food and Nutrition Programs, Table 3-39. January 2012.