There is Such a Thing as a Free (and Nutritious) School Lunch

More than 30 million students participate in the National School Lunch Program. They join the millions of other students who have enjoyed a nutritional school lunch since the National School Lunch Act became law in 1946. Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program must ensure that their meals meet certain nutritional guidelines and that there are free and reduced price lunches available to eligible students. In return, school lunches are partially supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nutritional Guidelines

Since the 1996-1997 school year, the regulations implementing the National School Lunch Program have required that all school meals meet the requirements of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. That means that no more than 30 percent of the meal’s calories can come from fat and the saturated fat content must be under 10 percent. The regulations also require that school lunches provide one third of the daily Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories required under the Dietary Guidelines.

That said, the choice of what to serve is up to the local school districts. For example, a nice warm chicken vegetable soup might be perfect on a January day in Bangor Maine, it would likely be unwelcome in Miami, Florida. Therefore, local school districts are given the opportunity to make their own menus and meal plans so long as they conform with the dietary requirements set forth in the regulations.

Free and Reduced Priced Lunch Eligibility

Another key component of the National School Lunch Program is to ensure that every student eats lunch. To that end, every school that participates in the National School Lunch Program has to offer free and reduced lunches based on the following criteria. Children who are part of families who have annual incomes below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free lunches. Children who are part of families who have annual incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced priced lunches that may not exceed 40 cents per meal.

Children who are part of families who make more than 185 percent of the poverty level pay full price. However, they are still getting a healthy meal at a decent price. Schools are permitted to set their own prices for full priced meals however, because they are participating in the National School Lunch Program they must operate as non-profit programs and they must meet the nutritional guidelines described above. Additionally, the Department of Agriculture partially reimburses schools for all meals, including full price meals, that the schools serve.

The National School Lunch Programs are typically administered through the State Departments of Education which also oversee any state laws and regulations regarding school nutrition and administer federal and state grants regarding school nutrition.

When Congress passed the National School Lunch Act in 1946 they defined its purpose as one of national security. Namely, Congress sought to protect the health and well being of school children by encouraging them to eat nutritionally balanced meals and by making sure that no child would be excluded from this benefit because he or she lacked the ability to pay for lunch.

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