More than Just Lunch

One in eight children in America live in households without consistent access to adequate food. Every Monday morning, school nutrition professionals witness this hunger on the faces of students eagerly waiting in line for a school breakfast after a long weekend without enough to eat.

Armed with scientific research linking school meals and healthy diets to academic success, school nutrition professionals have worked to expand breakfast programs, launch summer and afterschool meal programs to meet students’ nutritional needs.

Expanding the School Breakfast Program

On average, students who eat school breakfast have been shown to achieve 17.5% higher scores on standardized math tests and attend 1.5 more days of school per year (No Kid Hungry). Unfortunately, tight school bus timetables, late student arrivals and early class schedules can limit participation in traditional cafeteria breakfast programs.

Fortunately, school nutrition professionals are finding creative ways to overcome these barriers. School breakfast participation is increasing through innovative delivery methods, such as grab-and-go service options, which allow students to quickly pick up their meal from the cafeteria or a hallway kiosk on their way to class. Many schools are even serving breakfast in the classroom so students can enjoy a healthy meal during morning announcements.

Summer Meals

Every child deserves a carefree summer vacation, but for many kids, summer break means an end to the free and reduced price school meals they depend on during the school year. Thankfully, in many communities across the nation, school nutrition programs are stepping up to make sure children don’t go hungry this summer.

Through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Summer Food Service Program, schools serving low-income communities can provide free meals and snacks to children at school cafeterias, parks, playgrounds, public housing complexes, summer camps or churches.

Afterschool Snacks and Meals

Through NSLP, more than 25,000 schools and institutions serve healthy snacks to children participating in afterschool activities. Click on the links for more information on afterschool snacks, including a fact sheet detailing reimbursement rates, eligibility and menu requirements. Under the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), eligible sites serve a snack or a meal to children as part of afterschool activities. Visit USDA's CACFP page for more information.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides free fresh fruit and vegetable snacks to students during the school day in elementary schools with high free and reduced price eligibility rates. Participating schools receive between $50 to $75 per student each year.

School Meals During the Pandemic

Beginning in March 2020, federal pandemic regulatory waivers allowed schools to offer free meals to all children without an application. Waivers eased rules, allowing schools to distribute grab-and-go meals, and provided higher per-meal reimbursements to help cover pandemic costs. SNA advocated to extend waivers through SY 2022-23 to address ongoing supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and rising costs. The Keep Kids Fed Act, signed June 25, 2022, provided additional funds for school meal programs and extended select regulatory waivers, but prevented all schools from offering free meals to all students for SY 2022-23.

Select states, such as California and Maine, have dedicated state funds to continue free school meal service. In addition, high-poverty schools enrolled in the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) can continue free meal service. However, in most schools, families eligible for free or reduced price school meals now must apply for meal benefits; all other families must pay for school meals.

Supply Chain & Financial Challenges

School meal programs have always operated on extremely tight budgets. Inflation, compounded by persistent supply chain disruptions and labor shortages, have dramatically increased costs for schools. In SNA’s 2023 School Nutrition Trends Survey of school nutrition directors nationwide, increasing costs was the top challenge cited by nearly all respondents (99.8%), with 88.5% indicating costs are a significant challenge.

More than 90% of respondents also cited challenges with menu item shortages, discontinued menu items and supply shortages. Students continue to receive healthy meals, but as manufacturers and distributors reduced the number of products and services they offer, the ensuing scramble to secure foods and supplies drove up costs for school meal programs. Meanwhile, nationwide labor shortages required meal programs, which often compete with local restaurants for employees, to increase pay or offer bonuses to attract employees. 92.9% of school nutrition programs report challenges with staff shortages.

School meal programs are expected to be self-sustaining, covering their expenses with federal reimbursements and cafeteria sales. Recognizing cost challenges, Congress raised the SY 2022-23 NSLP/SBP reimbursement rates by 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast as part of the bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act.

Nearly all respondents (99.2%) expressed concern about reimbursement adequacy when these additional funds expire in July 2023, and 80.7% expressed serious concerns. Resulting financial losses will cut into education budgets, impeding efforts to meet the needs of students and jeopardizing progress in school nutrition programs. SNA’s 2023 Position Paper urges Congress to make permanent the Keep Kids Fed Act’s increased reimbursements.

Benefits of School Meals

Balanced nutrition throughout the day contributes to student success in and out of the classroom. New research shows children are getting their healthiest meals at school. Studies have demonstrated that school meal programs play an important role in supporting obesity prevention, overall student health and academic achievement by improving children’s diets and combatting hunger. Click on the links to read more about the proven benefits of the School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program. Also, hear from Pediatrician Robert Murray (MD, FAAP) about the importance of nutrients to brain and child development, and how healthy school meals build healthier students.

Participation, Meals Served and Program Cost

National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Average Daily Participation

Pre-pandemic, nearly 100,000 schools/institutions serve school lunches to 29.6 million students each day, including:

  • 20.1 million free lunches
  • 1.7 million reduced price (student pays $0.40)
  • 7.7 million full price
  • 4.9 billion lunches are served annually

(Source: USDA FY 2019 data)

NSLP Annual Cost

14.20 billion in federal dollars, including:

  • 12.87 billion in reimbursements
  • 1.33 billion in commodity costs

(Source: USDA FY 2019 data)

School Breakfast Program (SBP) Average Daily Participation

Pre-pandemic, over 90,000 schools/institutions serve school breakfasts to 14.77 million students each day, including:

  • 11.80 million free breakfasts
  • 0.74 million reduced price (student pays $0.30)
  • 2.23 million full price
  • 2.45 billion breakfasts are served annually

(Source: USDA FY 2019 data)

SBP Annual Cost

  • 4.6 billion in federal reimbursements
  • No commodity entitlement

(Source: USDA FY 2019 data)

Reimbursement Rates

Federal Reimbursement Rates for SY2023-24:

School meal programs are reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each meal they serve. During SY2022/23, Congress provided an additional 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast under the Keep Kids Fed Act to offset rising costs; however, these extra funds expired on June 30, 2023. Below are reimbursement rates for SY2023/24 for meals served in the contiguous states to students eligible for free meals, reduced price meals, and for students who pay for their meals. Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands receive higher rates. Get further details on reimbursement rates.

NSLP Reimbursement Rates for SY2023-24:

  • Free: $4.25
  • Reduced Price: $3.85
  • Paid: $0.40
  • Most schools are certified to receive an additional performance-based reimbursement of $.08 per lunch.
  • An additional $.02 per lunch is provided to schools in which 60 percent or more of the second preceding school year lunches were served free or reduced price.

SBP Reimbursement Rates for SY 2023-24:

  • Free: $2.28
  • Reduced Price: $1.98
  • Paid: $0.38
  • An additional $0.45 is provided for each free or reduced price breakfast served in “severe need” schools, where at least 40 percent of the lunches served during the second preceding school year were served free or reduced price.

Eligibility for Free and Reduced Price Meals

Pandemic waivers allowed all schools to offer free meals to all students. Since waivers expired, free meal service has continued in a few select states and in high-poverty schools enrolled in Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). However, in most schools, eligible families complete an application to receive free or reduced price meals. Children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free school meals. Those with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals (student pays 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch).

In SY2023-24, a family of four earning $39,000 a year or less is eligible for free meals and one earning $55,500 or less is eligible for reduced price meals. Children from families with incomes over 185% of poverty pay full price for their meals. Local school districts set their own prices for paid meals. Get further details on income eligibility, including rates for Alaska and Hawaii.

School Meal Prices and Unpaid Meals

School meal prices vary widely across the country. Prices are set by local school districts, usually with school board oversight. The following table lists typical prices for paid meals during the 2022-23 school year. The data was collected in SNA’s 2023 School Nutrition Trends Survey, which included responses from 1,230 SNA member school districts nationwide. Rising food and labor costs have forced many school districts to consider increasing prices for SY2022-23.


Unpaid Meals and Charge Policies

No one wants a child to go hungry or feel shame—especially those working in school cafeterias. School nutrition professionals work throughout the year to enroll struggling families in the free and reduced price meal program and to make the cafeteria a welcoming, safe space for students.

School meals are as critical to learning as textbooks and teachers. To ensure every student is nourished and ready to learn, SNA advocates for providing all students school meals at no charge. Unfortunately, federal school meal funds only cover the full cost of meals served to students eligible for free meals. Schools must charge all other students to cover food, labor and other costs.

USDA regulations require schools to implement unpaid meal policies clarifying what happens when a student cannot pay for a meal. School policies may limit the number of times students can charge a meal or offer students a free, lower-cost alternate meal, such as a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk. USDA requires schools to work to collect any debt incurred from meal charges and prohibits them from using federal funds to pay off unpaid meal debt. When families can’t or don’t pay for meals served, unpaid meal debt can rapidly accumulate, forcing schools to use education funds to cover losses.

However, in SNA’s 2023 School Nutrition Trends Survey, 96.3% of districts that must charge for meals reported that unpaid meal debt is a challenge for their school meal programs, with 65.4% reporting a significant challenge. Among the 847 districts that reported the amount of their current debt, total accumulated unpaid meal debt exceeded $19 million.

School nutrition professionals work to support families and prevent or minimize student meal charges. Schools assist families completing free and reduced price meal applications, provide online payment and monitoring of account balances, and send low balance notifications through automated phone calls, texts and emails. Many schools also offer financial support through charitable donations.

Other Strategies to Curb Unpaid Meal Charges

Eliminating the reduced price copay

Some low income families, particularly those with multiple school aged children, struggle to afford the daily reduced price copay for school breakfast (30 cents) and lunch (40 cents). Some school districts and states have elected to cover the cost of the reduced price copay to ensure these students receive healthy school meals at no charge. This tactic can reduce unpaid meal charges and increase school meal participation among students from low income families.

Community Eligibility Provision (CEP)

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a federal program that allows the nation’s highest poverty schools or districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications.

Research shows school meals contribute to the health, attentiveness, behavior and academic success of students. Allowing all students to receive free meals ensures students have equal access to the benefits nutritious school meals while reducing program administrative costs.


Cost to Produce School Meals

In light of rising food and supply costs, school nutrition professionals face a delicate balancing act to keep their programs in the black. SNA is calling on Congress to provide increased funding and regulatory flexibility to help school meal programs manage higher costs.

In April 2019, USDA released the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, which examined the cost of producing school meals during school year 2014-15. The study found that the average school meal program operates at a small deficit, and the reported cost of producing school meals typically exceeds federal reimbursements for those meals.

Costs differ from one community to the next due to regional variations in food, labor and fuel costs, and local variations in school equipment and infrastructure, contract agreements, etc. For the typical school meal program, the average reported cost to produce a school lunch was $3.81, compared to the average federal free lunch subsidy of $3.32. The average cost to produce a breakfast was $2.72, well above the federal subsidy of $1.88. However, SNA’s 2023 School Nutrition Trends Survey indicates costs have risen substantially in recent years.

To boost operational revenue, many school meal programs rely on a la carte sales, provide catering services or contract with community programs such as Head Start and child care or elder care centers to supply meals.

Breakdown in Costs

The School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study revealed the following average breakdown in costs for producing a school lunch:

Other direct costs (supplies, contracted services, equipment, utilities, etc.)9.5%
Indirect Costs*1.3%

*Indirect costs are paid to the school district for the use of facilities, administrative support or other services.

Typical Expenses

The average school nutrition program has a number of expenses beyond food, labor, benefits and supplies that factor into the budget. These include:

  • Purchased and leased equipment (kitchen, office, dining, vehicles)
  • Repair / maintenance
  • Purchased services (contracts with vendors for data processing, consultant fees, custodial, printing, advertising, legal, human resources, etc.)
  • Technology (point of sale systems, nutrient analysis and menu planning software, inventory tracking and online payment systems)
  • Electricity / water / trash removal
  • Transportation / fuel
  • Professional development
  • Marketing / promotion
  • Security services and lunch room supervision

Lunch Period Scheduling

Federal regulations state that “schools must offer lunches between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm. Schools may request an exemption from these times from the state agency.” These regulations also encourage schools “to provide sufficient lunch periods that are long enough to give all students adequate time to be served and to eat their lunches.”

SNA’s State of School Nutrition 2018 survey, which included responses from 1,550 SNA member school districts nationwide, revealed that the typical lunch period length is about half an hour, with a median of 25 minutes reported for elementary schools and 30 minutes for middle and high schools. However, this data does not specify the amount of time students have to eat their meals, as lunch periods must also include travel time from the classroom to the cafeteria and time in line to select a meal.

Lunch schedules and short lunch periods continue to challenge school nutrition professionals, as they work to serve hundreds of students in a matter of minutes and ensure students have adequate time to enjoy their meals. Under updated nutrition standards for school meals, cafeterias are offering more fresh produce, which takes more time for students to consume.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 research brief, Making Time for School Lunch, recommends that students have “at least 20 minutes once they are seated (seat time).” SNA has called on the US Departments of Agriculture and Education to work with school meal programs in developing best practices and guidance to ensure students have adequate time to eat healthy school meals.