How it was trading food at the lunch table all parts 12

National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides low-cost or free lunches to children and operates in nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools (grades Pre-Kindergarten–12) and residential child care institutions. In fiscal year (FY) 2019 (before the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic), the program provided 4.9 billion lunches at a total cost of $14.2 billion.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers the NSLP and reimburses participating schools and residential child care institutions for the meals served to students. Any student in a participating school can get an NSLP lunch. Students from households with incomes:

  • At or below 130 percent of the Federal poverty line can receive a free lunch.
  • Between 130 and 185 percent of the Federal poverty line can receive a reduced-price lunch.
  • Above 185 percent of the Federal poverty line can receive a low-cost, full-price lunch.

The onset of the pandemic in the second half of FY 2020 disrupted the provision of meals through the program by forcing schools to limit their operations. In response to these disruptions and to meet rising food needs during the pandemic, USDA issued waivers allowing for flexibilities in the implementation of the NSLP and expanded the scope and coverage of the program’s Seamless Summer Option (SSO). USDA also created the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program to reimburse families with children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals for the value of school meals missed due to pandemic-related disruptions to in-person instruction at schools. To learn more about pandemic-era changes to the NSLP, please see:

In FY 2020, the NSLP provided about 3.2 billion meals, 76.9 percent of which were served free or at a reduced price. This share was 2.8 percentage points more than in FY 2019. In FY 2021, the first full year of the pandemic, the program provided 2.2 billion meals, 98.9 percent of which were served free or at a reduced price. The increase in the share of meals served free or at a reduced price is in part attributable to a USDA pandemic waiver allowing for meals to be provided free of charge to students.

USDA, Economic Research Service-sponsored research found that children from food-insecure and marginally food-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. To learn more, please see:

Participation in USDA’s child nutrition programs, including NSLP, has been found to reduce food insecurity. To learn more about the impact of NSLP on food insecurity, please see:

Meals served through NSLP must meet Federal nutrition standards, which were updated in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) to more closely match the Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The legislation also authorized an additional payment per meal (7 cents as of the 2020–2021 school year) to schools when they demonstrated that they were serving meals that met the updated standards and established new regulations for meal prices charged to students not certified for free or reduced-price meals. To learn more about the new standards, their effect on children’s nutritional intake, and how schools strive to provide healthy and appealing meals that encourage student participation, please see:

In response to concerns about the role of the school meal environment in children’s diets and other issues, the HHFKA also established updated nutrition standards for non-USDA foods sold in schools (often called “competitive foods”) participating in USDA’s school meal programs. The HHFKA also created the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), an option that allows high-poverty schools to offer free meals to all students. To learn more about CEP, please see:

USDA also encourages school districts to use locally produced foods in school meals and to use “farm-to-school” activities to spark students’ interest in trying new foods. More than 4 in 10 U.S. school districts reported participating in farm-to-school activities, which include serving local foods, in the 2013–14 or 2014–15 school years. To learn more about the characteristics of school districts likely to serve local foods, please see:

All figures are based on data available as of April 2022 and are subject to revision.

For the latest information on updates to the program during the COVID-19 pandemic, see FNS Responds to COVID-19.

Additional studies and information about program eligibility requirements, benefits, and application processes are available from the Food and Nutrition Service Child Nutrition Programs web page.

Download chart data in Excel format

Request Access

Due to aggressive automated scraping of and, programmatic access to these sites is limited to access to our extensive developer APIs.

If you are human user receiving this message, we can add your IP address to a set of IPs that can access &; complete the CAPTCHA (bot test) below and click “Request Access”. This should only be necessary once for each IP address you access the site from.

An official website of the United States government.

If you want to request a wider IP range, first request access for your current IP, and then use the “Site Feedback” button found in the lower left-hand side to make the request.

K-12 schools have a special role in not only reducing, recovering, and recycling food waste on their premises but also in educating the next generation about the importance of food conservation and recovering wholesome excess food for donation to those less fortunate.

Most importantly, increasing consumption and reducing wasted food means children get the nutritional benefits from the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP).

The best way to tackle food waste is to make sure students consume what they take. This involves good planning by school nutrition staff, getting students involved in decision-making, and having teachers educate students on the impacts of wasted food.


  • Offer-versus-serve (OVS) – Allows students to decline some components of a reimbursable meal as a way of providing choice and reducing waste. OVS is mandatory in high schools, but optional for elementary and middle schools (81 percent of all elementary and middle schools used OVS at lunch).
  • Market your meals – Highlight new foods on your menus and serving lines. Consider holding taste tests and recipe competitions or creating a student advisory committee to provide feedback on food acceptability and recipe names.
  • Extend lunch from 20 to 30 minutes – In a poll by NPR and the Harvard School of Public Health (PDF, 1 MB), 20 percent of parents of students from kindergarten through fifth grade surveyed said their child only gets 15 minutes or less to eat. Extending the lunch period can improve dietary intake and reduce food waste.
  • Create share tables – Share tables are designated stations where children may return whole and/or unopened food or beverage items they choose not to eat. These items are then made available to other children who may want another serving during or after the meal service. USDA encourages the use of share tables and offers implementation guidance.
  • Saving food items – Students who may not have time to finish their meal during the designated lunch period may save certain meal components for later in the day. For food safety reasons, this practice should be limited to food items that do not require cooling or heating.


  • Guide to Conducting Student Food Waste Audits (PDF, 2.7 MB) – This food waste audit guide provides students with step-by-step guidance on collecting data on how much food and which types of food is thrown away by students in their school cafeterias. The guide is intended to help educate students about the amount of food they waste in their school cafeterias and to educate them about ways to encourage healthy eating and reduced waste.
  • Reducing Food Waste: What Schools Can Do Today (PDF, 858 KB) – Hang this infographic up in your school or use it as an educational tool in the classroom.
  • Team Nutrition: What You Can Do to Help Prevent Wasted Food (PDF, 1.4 MB) – Provides tips for school nutrition professionals, teachers, and students.
  • Summary of Food Waste Resources and Tools for Nutrition Programs – The USDA Food and Nutrition Service’s Office of Food Safety has compiled a selection of reports, articles, and tools that school nutrition professionals can utilize to understand the issue of food waste and assist them in implementing strategies to reduce wasted food.

Contact Us:
Dr. Jean Buzby
USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison
[email protected]

Written by Jane