School Meals Programs – FAQs

Q: What are the National School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs?

A: The Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1946, created the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) “as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.”  The School Breakfast Program (SBP) began as a pilot program in 1966 to provide nutritious breakfasts and became permanent in 1975.  Today, both programs provide federal support in the form of cash assistance to states and USDA commodity foods are provided for school lunches. 


Q: Who eats school meals?

A: More than 30 million students eat school lunches and more than 14 million students eat school breakfasts on the average school day. All students – regardless of income – can participate in the program and all meals are partially subsidized. Students in lower-income families pay less out-of-pocket for their meals.


Q: Are school meals related to poverty?

A: School meals help improve nutrition for all kids, particularly among vulnerable children. In so doing, they help build a better future for these children. Further, participation in free meals has been shown to improve student achievement, diets and behavior, and to help reduce food insecurity as well as other poverty-related hardships among children in areas of concentrated poverty. During the Great Recession, free and reduced-price school meals were especially beneficial for children from low-income families that struggled to afford nutritious food in the midst of a severe economic downturn.


Q: Why are schools meals important?

A:  Ask any teacher or parent and they will tell you that children who lack proper nutrition have trouble focusing in school. Medical authorities and nutrition researchers have documented that nutritious meals are critical for success in school and beyond. Unfortunately, over 13 million children face some form of food insecurity.  School meal programs are on the frontline of efforts to reduce food insecurity. Students should be hungry to learn at school, not hungry for food.


Q: What are the “nutrition standards” and are schools meeting the current standards?

A: The most recent reauthorization, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, sought to address food insecurity and childhood obesity through improved nutrition standards for school meals and all snacks served in school settings. The standards require that meals not exceed certain sodium levels based on age range, include more whole grains, and require that students take fruits and vegetables with their meals. Further, items such as those sold in vending also have to meet nutrition standards. More than 98 percent of schools are meeting the standards.[1]

Q: Why do we need nutrition standards?

A: With nearly one-third of American children at risk for serious, but preventable illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, Congress and the federal government have a right and duty to ensure access to healthy school meals that are linked to improvements in students’ academic performance, behavioral outcomes, and long-term health. Maintaining robust standards for child nutrition programs in any child nutrition authorization is what American families overwhelmingly want. Ninety percent of Americans support the national school nutrition standards, and 86 percent say the school nutrition standards should stay the same or be strengthened, according to a recent poll by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Q: What is the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) used by some schools to provide their meals?

A: Community eligibility is a powerful tool that allows school districts to provide easier access to nutritious meals for children in high-poverty schools. It simplifies the meal programs by allowing schools to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students while eliminating applications and tracking eligibility in the lunch line. Schools are reimbursed based on a formula so that the higher the poverty level of the school, the higher their federal reimbursement is.

Q: What does the 40 percent threshold needed to qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision mean?

A: Under federal law, certain students are automatically enrolled for free meals without an application because they are at special risk for food insecurity and other consequences of living in poverty, such as children living in households receiving SNAP benefits or children who are homeless. These especially vulnerable students are referred to as “identified students” because they have been identified by other programs as especially vulnerable. Schools in which 40 percent or more of the students are identified students can adopt community eligibility. 

But identified students are only a subset of those who would qualify for free- or reduced-price meals if the school collected school meal applications. Schools in which 40-60 percent of students are identified as automatically eligible for free meals typically have 64-96 percent of their students approved for free- or reduced-price meals. This can occur when some children do not participate in one of the programs that confer automatic eligibility; were missed in the data matching process used to identify such students; or are eligible for reduced price meals. Also, in schools with such high concentrations of poverty, students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals are typically not much better off than those who do qualify.

Q: Would the changes to the Community Eligibility Provision in the House bill cause low-income children to lose access to school meals?

A:  Yes. While in the absence of community eligibility families could apply for free or reduced price meals, the change would decrease low-income children’s access to school meals.  Some parents whose children are eligible for free or reduced meals do not complete applications and their children do not receive free or reduced price meals. Even approved students sometimes skip meals rather than risk being labelled as poor by their peers. 

Q: Is it worth cutting the Community Eligibility Provision to invest more resources in breakfasts and summer meals for low-income children?

A: No – this is a false choice.  Congress has many other options to pay for breakfast reimbursements or summer meals for low-income children that do not involve making it harder for low-income children to get meals at school.


Q: Who benefits from the Community Eligibility Provision?

A: Just about everyone. Schools benefit from having to spend less time collecting and verifying school meal applications and can devote their limited time and resources to menu planning and other essential functions for the success of the school. Parents no longer have to worry about filling out forms so that their children can access free or reduced priced meals. Students no longer have to worry about the stigma of being a “free kid” since all students are treated equally under CEP.


Q:  The House bill creates a block grant state pilot. What does this mean?

A: Right now, schools are reimbursed for meals they provide to students. The House bill includes a three state block grant pilot, where school meals programs would be paid for out of one general fund provided to the state, rather than reimbursed on a per meal basis.  Block grants are capped, set funding streams that cannot respond to either increases or decreases in demand. The current reimbursement structure ensures that every eligible child gets a meal, with federal reimbursement.


Q:  Would a block grant impact children’s access to school meals?

A: Troublingly, block grants tend to dramatically lose value over time because they are not adjusted for inflation. As a result, the vast majority of major block grant programs have actually shrunk in inflation-adjusted terms since their inception. For example, funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program has fallen 32 percent and the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant has fallen 29 percent.  Therefore, it is deeply concerning that capping the school meals funding could result in fewer children having access to school meals.  Further, the only requirement is that every student gets a single “healthy” and “affordable” meal each day.  But those terms are not defined so, for example, a muffin provided at 6 a.m. could count.  Or a state could decide to provide free meals only to students living below half the poverty line.