Program Information - Overview of NSLP

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program operating in more than 94,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions nationwide. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 26 million children each school day. Established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946, the program celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2021.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), administers the program at the Federal level. In Nebraska, it is administered by the Nebraska Department of Education in the office of Nutrition Services, which operates the program through agreements with local school districts and private schools. School districts and private schools that choose to take part in the lunch program receive cash reimbursement and donated commodity assistance from USDA for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet federal nutrition requirements, and they must offer free and reduced-price lunches to eligible children.

In 1994, in an effort to improve the nutritional quality of school meals, FNS launched the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children, the first full-scale reform of the school lunch program since it was established. The centerpiece of the initiative was new regulations to update nutrition standards so that all school meals will meet the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The new regulations became final in June 1995, and took effect at the beginning of school year 1996-97. The 2005 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was released in January, 2005.

In support of USDA’s School Meals Initiative, in October 1994, Congress passed the Healthy Meals for Healthy Americans Act, requiring that all school meals conform to the Dietary Guidelines by school year 1996-97. The Healthy Meals for Children Act, passed in May 1996, expanded the range of menu planning options for schools, and reinforced the requirement that all school meals must meet the Dietary Guidelines.

Other elements of the initiative will teach and motivate children to make healthy food choices, cut administrative red tape, and continue to improve the quality of the commodities USDA provides to schools.

Recognizing that improved nutrition education empowers students to make healthy food choices, USDA established Team Nutrition to support the School Meals Initiative. Team Nutrition brings together public/private partnerships to teach children the importance of making healthy food choices, and to help give school food service professionals the tools and skills they need to deliver healthy school meals.

Team Nutrition has produced significant results. USDA formed a groundbreaking partnership with the Walt Disney Company to develop healthy eating messages to be used on television. USDA also entered into a partnership with Scholastic, Inc., to deliver age-appropriate nutrition information to children in school and to their parents at home.

USDA has also placed special emphasis on improving the quality of commodities donated to the National School Lunch Program. The Commodities Improvement Council was established in 1995 to promote the health of school children by improving the nutritional profile of USDA commodities while maintaining USDA’s support for domestic agricultural markets. Based on the council’s recommendations, USDA reduced the fat, sodium, and sugar content of commodities, and is now offering a wider variety of new low-fat and reduced-fat products.

USDA has made enormous progress in increasing the amount of fresh produce given to schools, and is now offering unprecedented amounts and varieties of fresh fruit and vegetables. A cooperative project with the Department of Defense (DOD) has allowed USDA to increase the variety of produce available to schools by utilizing DOD’s buying and distribution system.

By the beginning of the 2006-07 school year, school districts must adopt a Local Wellness Policy. The policy must address the following:

1. Policies targeting

• Nutrition education
• Physical activity
• Other school-based activities to promote wellness

2. Guidelines for reimbursable meals
3. Nutrition guidelines for all foods at school
4. Plan for measuring implementation
5. Community involvement

All schools must implement a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan and receive at least two health inspections each year. The most recent health inspection must be available for public review.

Any child at a participating school may purchase a meal through the National School Lunch Program. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents. This is based on income eligibility guidelines.

Children from families with incomes over 185 percent of poverty pay a full price, though their meals are still eligible for a small amount of reimbursement. Local school food authorities set their own prices for full-price meals.

In Nebraska for the school year 2006-07, 1,047 schools and residential child care institutions participate in the National School Lunch Program. Public schools or non-profit private schools of high school grade or under, and residential child care institutions are eligible. In Nebraska 333,001 students have access to meals through the NSLP. On a typical day, about 68 percent of the school children to whom the lunch program is available participate.

Most of the support USDA provides to schools in the National School Lunch Program comes in the form of a cash reimbursement for each meal served.

Schools can charge no more than 40 cents for a reduced-price lunch. USDA sets no limit on the amount schools can charge for full-price meals. For the 2006-07 school year, the average charge for lunches in elementary schools is $1.74 and $1.93 in secondary schools.

In addition to cash reimbursements, schools are entitled by law to receive commodity foods , called “entitlement” foods, at a value of 16.75 cents for each meal served in 2006-07. Schools can also get “bonus” commodities as they are available from surplus stocks.

States select entitlement foods for their schools from a list of more than 60 different kinds of food purchased by USDA and offered through the school lunch program. The list includes fresh, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables; meats; fruit juices; vegetable shortening; peanut products; vegetable oil; and flour and other grain products.

Bonus foods are offered only as they become available through agricultural surplus. The variety of both entitlement and bonus commodities schools can get from USDA depends on quantities available and market prices.

Schools receive USDA commodities. Schools purchase most of the food served to students on the open market.

USDA does not require schools to serve – or not serve – any particular foods. School meals must meet Federal nutrition requirements, but decisions about what foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities.

Until the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children, the Federal nutritional requirements for school meals had not changed significantly since the school lunch program began in 1946. As part of the initiative, USDA published regulations to help schools bring their meals up to date to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that no more than 30 percent of an individual’s calories come from fat, and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat. The Guidelines also establish a standard for school meals to provide one-third of the Recommended Daily Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories. Schools’ compliance with both the Dietary Guidelines and the RDA’s is measured over a week’s menu cycle.

Schools have the option to choose one of five systems for their menu planning: NuMenus, Assisted NuMenus, traditional meal pattern, enhanced meal pattern, and other “reasonable approaches.” Both the NuMenus and Assisted NuMenus systems base their planning on a computerized nutritional analysis of the week’s menu. The two meal pattern options base their menu planning on minimum component quantities of meat or meat alternate; vegetables and fruits; grains and breads; and milk. The fifth menu option allows schools to develop other “reasonable approaches” to meeting the Dietary Guidelines, using menu planning guidelines from USDA.

The National School Lunch Act in 1946 created the modern school lunch program, though USDA had provided funds and food to schools for many years prior to that. In signing the 1946 act, President Harry S Truman said, “Nothing is more important in our national life than the welfare of our children, and proper nourishment comes first in attaining this welfare.”

About 7.1 million children were participating in the National School Lunch Program by the end of its first year, 1946-47. By 1970, 22 million children were participating, and by 1980 the figure was nearly 27 million. In 1990, an average of 24 million children ate school lunch every day. In Fiscal Year 2005, more than 29.6 million children each day got their lunch through the National School Lunch Program. Since the program began, more than 187 billion lunches have been served.

By comparison, the lunch program’s total cost in 1947 was $70 million; in 1950, $119.7 million; 1960, $225.8 million; 1970, $565.5 million; 1975, $1.7 billion; 1980, $3.2 billion; 1985, $3.4 billion; 1990, $3.7 billion; and 2005, $7.9 billion.

Updated August 12, 2021 2:49pm