Who is Eligible to Participate in Federally Funded School Food Programs?

students getting lunch

The Food and Nutrition Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers several child nutrition programs including the the National School Lunch Program, and the School Breakfast Program, Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, Special Milk Program, Summer Food Service Program, and Child and Adult Care Food Program.  These programs are administered by State education agencies who reimburse schools for operating the programs which provide healthy meals to children. Operating in over 100,000 public and non-profit private schools, they provide nutritionally balanced and low-cost or free meals (breakfast, lunch, snacks and in some cases supper) each school day.

Schools are reimbursed for meals they serve as long as the meals meet the federal meal patterns and nutritional requirements based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010). The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 required new federal requirements to go into effect for lunches in school year 2012-2013 and breakfast in SY 2013-2014. Decisions regarding what specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities, as long as the federal nutritional requirements are met.  Additionally, states select entitlement and bonus foods for their schools from a list of various foods purchased by the USDA and offered through the school lunch program.  The variety and availability of these foods depend on agricultural surplus and market prices.

The amount of money reimbursed to schools for meals is based on the number of students who qualify for free, reduced-price, or paid meals. Eligibility is based on household income. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals.  Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals.  For the period July 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014, 130 percent of the poverty level is $30,615 ($38,272 in Alaska and $35,217 in Hawaii) for a family of four; 185 percent is $43,568 ($54,464 in Alaska and $50,117 in Hawaii).  Children from families with incomes over 185 percent of poverty pay a full price, though their meals are still subsidized to some extent.  Local school food authorities set their own prices for paid meals, but must operate their meal services as non-profit programs. Regulations require that paid meal prices be established using a “paid lunch equity” formula. 


Bidisha Mandal, Washington State University School of Economic Sciences        


USDA, FNS National School Lunch Program

USDA, FNS Child Nutrition Programs

USDA, FNS Income Eligibility Guidelines

USDA, FNS Paid Lunch Equality Tool