The School Lunch Program

school lunch program pictureThe Birth of the School Lunch Program

The Commodity Donation Program of 1936 marked the first time the government became significantly involved in school lunches.  Because crop surpluses are harmful to respective commodity prices, the act attempted to eliminate them by allotting excesses, in the form of lunches, to underprivileged school children1.  However, many school boards did not espouse the program because they were unwilling to invest in equipment and expansion for a program that was not certain to continue.  Additionally, food donation from the government fluctuated with commodity surpluses2.  So the 79th Congress considered a legislative proposal to make the Commodity Donation Program permanent and it was signed into law as the National School Lunch Bill1.

This new law required Congress to appropriate funds each year to pay for school lunches for low income children to be distributed to each state.  Of these funds, a portion supported districts’ purchase of foodservice related equipment and administrative costs associated with program operation.  Since the passing of the original legislation, a number of amendments have been added2.  Yet the School Lunch Program has remained unchanged for more than a decade until recently when President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which created new standards for school meals.  These new standards are meant to be better align school meals with modern principles of food and nutrition and practical aspects and challenges of schools3.

Eligibility requirements

The federal government provides free and reduced lunch, breakfast, milk and summer meal programs based on income.  Standards of eligibility run from July 1-June 30 of each year and are based on the Federal Income Poverty Guidelines.  Families of school-age children are eligible for reduced lunches (and other meals) if their total household income is 185%, or less, of the poverty guidelines for their household size.  For example, a family of five qualifies for reduced meals if their household income is under $52,559 annually.  Qualification for free lunch occurs at 130% of the poverty guidelines, so the same family of five would qualify at or below an income of $36,933 annually.  Eligibility is the same in all 48 contiguous states with a somewhat higher poverty standard for Alaska and Hawaii of approximately $1000 per household and $600 per household member4.

Application Process

All schools send out applications for free or reduced lunch at the start of the year to each household.  Applications may also be obtained at any time from the school throughout the year.  Once completed and returned to the school, the application is then reviewed to determine eligibility as established by the current Income Eligibility Guidelines.  All applicants currently receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are automatically qualified for free lunches and children of parents receiving unemployment benefits are often eligible as well5.

Parents who complete an application are required to provide four categories of information.  First is household composition, in which members of the household are listed if they are in school (regardless of age) and financially supported by the applicant, including foster children.  Second is participation in other assistance programs.  These may include SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) and associated identification information.  Third is household income, meaning all monies that support the family including public assistance, child support, alimony and child income.  Fourth is contact information and signature5.


For the fiscal year 2012, the national school lunch program cost $11.6 billion.  As might be expected, the cost of the program has substantially increased since its inception.  This is in part due to the increase in participation, but also inflationary factors.  In its first year, the program included 7.1 million participants at a cost of $70 million whereas today there are nearly 36 million students that participate in the National School Lunch Program.  The following chart and graph show the increase in participation and costs for the program over the decades to the present6,7:

Year Participants  Cost  Today’s Dollars Cost per Participant*
1947 7.1  $               70.00  $                           742.69  $                                  9.86
1950  –  $             119.70  $                        1,175.14  –
1960  –  $             225.80  $                        1,804.87  –
1970 22  $             565.50  $                        3,448.37  $                                25.70
1980 27  $          3,200.00  $                        9,188.31  $                              118.52
1990 24  $          3,700.00  $                        6,697.91  $                              154.17
2000  –  $          6,100.00  $                        8,381.27  –
2012 31.6  $        11,600.00  $                      11,953.92  $                              367.09
*In “today’s” dollars
**All numbers are in millions except for dates and cost per participant

Program Effectiveness

There is a great deal of literature whose purpose is to examine the success of the National School Lunch Program.  Despite this, effectiveness in providing quality nutrition to pupils is still not conclusive8.  For instance, one study found that vitamin intake for NSLP participants was positive for several nutrients, although not vitamin C.  These meals also proved higher in fat and saturated fat than meals of non-participants9.  Another study that analyzed school lunches and non-school lunches among kindergarteners found a similar result in which school lunches were superior in some nutrient content, but not others.  Also, studies often do not measure what students actually consume, are often limited in geographic scope and utilize varying methodologies8,10.

A recent update to the USDA standards for school lunches includes healthier meals for students, but has not proven effective.  Although the meals include historically superior nutritional content, students largely resist the changes.  More than 1 million students have stopped taking school lunch as a result of these changes 11.  Despite this setback, the program continues to provide nutritious lunches to millions of under-privileged children that might otherwise be faced with inferior alternatives or nothing at all.

Personal Assessment

It is clear that the National School Lunch Program’s main objective is to provide nutritious lunches to those that cannot otherwise afford them1.  Presumably, the implied requirements for this objective to occur are, one, that children are actually consuming these lunches in their entirety and two, that the program is sustainable.

It is evident that many children are unhappy with school lunches, especially recently.  They are therefore failing to get the nutrition that the program is meant to provide.  Although not directly applicable to the effectiveness of the NSLP, this trend also contributes to a significant waste of food11.  Although these may not be failures of the program itself, they are failures to meet the program’s objective.  In my view, providing less than ideal lunch options that school children will actually eat is far better than nutritionally superior (and more costly) foods that they will not.

Additionally, the cost of the NSLP has significantly increased over time and has presumably become less and less cost-efficient.  Cost increases per student have risen some 40-fold since its inception (inflation adjusted; see chart above).  Thus an honest thinker must question the sustainability of the program.  This is particularly true under the assumption that the future will bring similar results.  The high cost of the NSLP coupled with the uncertainty of its real effectiveness, ought to compel those in power to consider significant changes in its operation, such as requiring school districts to create their own lunch programs or giving states the power to determine its administration themselves.  Shifting the burden to the free market, such as through school lunch delivery services or outside vendor food services might also prove more cost-effective and attractive to students12.


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