National School Lunch Program


The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and home childcare facilities. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. 

Federal guidelines determine the nutritional requirements, but local school food authorities decide what to serve and how to serve it.

Who qualifies for free and reduced-price meals?

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 with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced‐price meals, which cost no more than 40 cents. 

For the period of July 1, 2014 – June 30, 2015, 130 percent of the poverty level is $31,005 for a family of four; 185 percent is $44,123

Children from families with incomes over 185 percent of the poverty level pay a full price, though their meals are still subsidized to some extent. Local school food systems set their own prices but must operate their meal services as nonprofit programs.

Some school systems are using a new Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to provide free lunches to all students in particular schools or across the entire school system, regardless of family income.  In Tennessee, 68 public school systems (48%) are participating in the CEP, either across the entire system or in particular schools. Check with your local school district to see what lunch program is offered in your community. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides schools with technical training and assistance to help staffs prepare healthy meals. They also furnish nutrition education to help children understand the link between diet and health, and promote connections with local small farmers who may be able to provide fresh produce.

School Breakfast and Afterschool Snack Programs

There is a companion School Breakfast Program operated by the Food and Nutrition Service. Schools that participate in the NSLP are also eligible to take part in theAfterschool Snack Program

Afterschool snacks give children a nutritional boost and draw them into supervised activities that are safe, fun and filled with learning opportunities. Organized, structured and supervised programs that provide snacks allow children to think and behave better, and help them make the grade!

To participate in the program, a school must provide children with regularly scheduled activities in an organized, structured and supervised environment, and include educational or enrichment activities (such as mentoring or tutoring programs). Competitive interscholastic sports teams are not eligible afterschool programs. 

Snacks must contain at least two different components of the following four: 

  • A serving of fat-free (unflavored or flavored) or low-fat milk (unflavored)
  • A serving of meat or meat alternate
  • A serving of vegetable(s) or fruit(s) or full-strength vegetable or fruit juice
  • A serving of whole-grain or enriched bread or cereal

Learn more about state child nutrition programs from the USDA.