National School Lunch Program
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is the Nation's second largest food and nutrition assistance program. In 2010, it operated in over 101,000 public and nonprofit private schools (grades K-12) and residential child care institutions. The NSLP provided low-cost or free lunches to over 31.6 million children daily at a cost of $10.5 billion.
Any student in a participating school can get an NSLP lunch regardless of the student's household income. Eligible students can receive free or reduced-price lunches:
- Free lunches are available to children in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of poverty
- Reduced-price lunches are available to children in households with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of poverty.
In 2010, school cafeterias served more than 5 billion lunches, more than half of them free or at a reduced price. ERS-sponsored research found that children from food-insecure and marginally secure households were more likely to eat school meals and received more of their food and nutrient intake from school meals than did other children.
Little boy sitting at a table eating a salad USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers the NSLP and reimburses participating schools' foodservice departments for the meals served to students. Meals are required to meet nutrition standards; as part of changes required by Congressional reauthorization of the program in 2010, NSLP nutrition standards are being updated to more closely match the Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
ERS researchers have examined important issues, background, and trends in the NSLP and found that the program faces numerous challenges. Program administrators strive to balance competing objectives:
- Meals must meet nutritional standards and stay within budgetary constraints, but at the same time, meals must be appealing so that children will actually eat what is served. ERS is conducting and sponsoring behavioral economics research to identify strategies to encourage children's acceptance of these healther meals.
- Calories must be adequate to meet nutritional needs, but school meals should not add to the problem of rising childhood obesity. An ERS sponsored study found that NSLP participants had lower intakes of sugar-sweetened beverages than did similar nonparticipants. NSLP participation did not affect the likelihood of being overweight.