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Free and Reduced Cost School Lunches



Free and reduced cost school lunches can be provided by any public or nonprofit private school or day care. Federal income guidelines determine who is eligible for free and reduced cost school lunch. Learn more about this nutritious meal option for kids.

Nearly 30 million American school children get free or reduced price school lunches through the National School Lunch Program. These free and reduced price lunches are intended to provide nutritious meals to children who come from lower income families and whose parents might not otherwise be able to afford nutritious meals for their children.

The National School Lunch Program began in 1946 to improve the nutrition of America’s children by providing free and reduced cost school lunches. Since that time the program has provided 214 billion free or reduced cost school lunches to children from families with lower incomes. Children from higher income families can also buy the lunches for the cost of preparing them.

Free school lunches can be provided by any public or nonprofit private school or day care center that agrees to follow some basic requirements, such as avoiding discrimination, following basic food safety requirements, and providing meals that meet certain health criteria. The federal and state governments provide participating schools with money and surplus food products. In 2007 the program cost $8.7 billion dollars to operate, and costs are expected to rise because of the increase in food prices.

A national study completed in 2004 found that students who received free and reduced price school lunches were more likely than those not participating in the program to have adequate intakes of some important vitamins and minerals. Participating students get more sources of protein, such as milk, meat, and beans, and they eat more fruit. Getting adequate nutrition helps students perform better in school and have fewer behavioral problems. Unfortunately, students participating in the program are also more likely to get too much sodium in their diets.

Families who already receive food stamps or other forms of federal or state food aid may automatically qualify for free school lunches. Families can also qualify for free school lunches if their income is below 130% of the federal poverty level. They can get school lunches for reduced cost if their income is between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level. The federal poverty guidelines change each year. For 2009-2010, for a household of three people:

  • Children qualify for free school lunches if the household’s income is less than $23,803 per year. For families with fewer or more than three people, subtract or add $4,862 per person.
  • Children qualify for reduced price school lunches if the household’s income is $33,874 or less per year. For families with fewer or more than three people, subtract or add $6,919 per person.
  • In Alaska, children in a family of three get free lunches if their annual household income is less than $29,757, plus or minus $6,084 per person. Families of three qualify for reduced price lunches if their income is $42,347 or less, plus or minus $8,658 per person.
  • In Hawaii, children in a family of three get free lunches if their annual household income is less than $27,378, plus or minus $5,590 per person. Families of three qualify for reduced price lunches if their income is $38,961 or less, plus or minus $7,955 per person.

For the purpose of determining if families may receive free or reduced price school lunches, income is any money that can be used to buy food, such as:

  • Salary, tips, etc. before taxes
  • Income from self employment
  • Unemployment benefits, welfare payments, etc.
  • Child support and alimony
  • Retirement and pension money, including military pensions
  • Interest from saving or bonds and money from trusts or estates
  • Income from rental properties
  • Other sources of cash, such as money given to the family regularly by someone outside the household

Parents who are interested in signing their children up for free or reduced price school lunches can apply through their children’s participating school or day care program.

Sources:
United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, “National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet” [online]
United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, “Diet quality of American School-age Children by School Lunch Participation Status: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (Summary)” [online]
Federal Register / Vol. 74, No. 58 / Friday, March 27, 2009 / Notices, Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service Child Nutrition Programs - Income Eligibility Guidelines [online]
Chef Ann Cooper: Renegade Lunch Lady, "The Real Cost of School Lunch," [online]
USAToday, "Vendors Pitch New Foods to Schools," [online]
Food Research and Action Center, "Federal Food Programs: National School Lunch Program,” [online]
School Nutrition Association, "School Nutrition Association Releases 'State of School Nutrition 2009' Survey" [online]
Pennsylvania Department of Education, "Food and Nutrition Programs: National School Lunch Programs" [online]