What is the National School Lunch Program?

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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 02 February 2020
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In the United States (U.S.), there is a program designed to ensure that no child has to miss lunch in a public school, non-profit private school, or residential child care center. With funding by the U.S. federal government, the National School Lunch Program provides lunch meals that are low-cost and sometimes even free for children in these settings. Additionally, the National School Lunch Program provides reimbursement to institutions that offer snacks to children who are participating in certain after school programs.

The National School Lunch Program began in 1946, when President Harry Truman signed the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act. The purpose of the program was two-fold. It served as a way to help absorb surpluses in farm food production as well as to ensure that school-age children received nutritious meals. The primary manner in which the program helps schools and residential child care centers is by giving participating institutions cash subsidies and reimbursements. Institutions may also receive commodity donations provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, however.


The stipulation for receiving funds and commodities through the National School Lunch Program is that the participating institutions have to provide lunch meals that are in keeping with federal guidelines. Additionally, they have to offer lunch meals for free or at lower cost to children who meet the eligibility guidelines for reduced-price meals. Institutions that offer after school programs may also benefit by seeking reimbursement for snacks they provide to children who participate in their education- and enrichment-based programs.

Among the nutritional requirements an institution must meet in order to be eligible for the National School Lunch Program are those related to calories. Each meal must derive no more than 30 percent of its calories from fat; a meal's saturated fat calorie content must be 10 percent or less. Additionally, these meals are required to provide significant nutrition. For example, each meal must include at least a third of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of a range of nutrients, including protein, calcium, and vitamin C. Each meal must also provide a third of the RDA for calories.

Each year, millions of children consume meals provided through the National School Lunch Program, and children can purchase these meals as long as they attend a participating institution. Some children are eligible for free or low-cost meals, however, and eligibility is based on family income. Those with incomes far above the poverty level may have to pay full price for meals while those with low income may get discounted meals. Those with the lowest levels of family income get their meals for free; after school snacks are usually handled in much the same way. In areas in which most children are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals, however, every child may receive free snacks without regard to family income.


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