School Meal Trends & Stats

Participation, Meals Served and Program Cost
Reimbursement Rates
Eligibility for Free and Reduced Price Meals
School Meal Prices
Cost to Produce School Meals
Lunch Period Scheduling
Benefits of School Meals

Participation, Meals Served and Program Cost

National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Average Daily Participation:
Nearly 100,000 schools/institutions serve school lunches to 29.8 million students each day, including:

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

(Source: USDA FY 2018 preliminary data)

NSLP Annual Cost:
13.83 billion in federal dollars, including:

  • 12.59 billion in reimbursements
  • 1.24 billion in commodity costs

(Source: USDA FY 2018 preliminary data)

School Breakfast Program (SBP) Average Daily Participation:
Over 90,000 schools/institutions serve school breakfasts to 14.71 million students each day, including:

  • 11.77 million free breakfasts
  • 0.77 million reduced price (student pays $0.30)
  • 2.17 million full price
  • 2.42 billion breakfasts are served annually

(Source: USDA FY 2018 preliminary data)

SBP Annual Cost:

  • 4.4 billion in federal reimbursements
  • No commodity entitlement

(Source: USDA FY 2018 preliminary data)  

Reimbursement Rates

Federal Reimbursement Rates for the 2019-20 School Year:
School meal programs are reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each meal they serve. Alaska and Hawaii receive higher rates. Below are the reimbursement rates for meals served to students eligible for free meals, reduced price meals, and for students who pay for their meals. Get further details on reimbursement rates.

NSLP Reimbursement Rates for the 2019-20 School Year:

  • Free: $3.41
  • Reduced Price: $3.01
  • Paid: $0.32
  • Schools certified as meeting the new nutrition standards receive an additional $.07 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 the 2019-20 School Year:

  • Free: $1.84
  • Reduced Price: $1.54
  • Paid: $0.31
  • An additional $0.36 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

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). For the 2019-20 school year, 130% of the poverty level is $33,475 for a family of four and 185% is $47,638.

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.

School Meal Prices

School meal prices vary widely across the country. Prices are set by local school districts, usually with school board oversight. The following table lists average prices for paid meals during the 2016-17 school year. The data was collected in SNA’s State of School Nutrition 2018 survey, which included responses from 1,550 SNA member school districts nationwide.

  Lunch   Breakfast  
Elementary   $2.48 $1.46
Middle   $2.68 $1.53
High   $2.74 $1.55

Unpaid meals and charge policies:
School nutrition professionals are passionate about ensuring all students have access to healthy school meals. They work throughout the year to enroll eligible students in the free or reduced price meals program. Non-enrolled students must pay for their meals to cover food and labor costs. When non-enrolled students “charge” their meals, unpaid meal debt can quickly accumulate to create a significant financial problem that can impact the quality of meals for all students and cut into education budgets.

SNA’s 2018 School Nutrition Operations Report revealed 75% of districts had unpaid meal debt. Recognizing this is a national problem, USDA mandated that by 2017 all school districts implement unpaid meal policies and work with families to collect debt incurred from unpaid meals.

Schools have latitude on what types of policies they implement. Policies may limit the number of times students can charge a meal or offer students an alternate meal, such as a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk. SNA’s survey found that schools employ multiple proactive tactics to support families and prevent or minimize student meal charges. Tactics include: online payment/monitoring of account balances; automated phone calls, texts or emails for low balance notifications; assistance for families completing free and reduced price applications and financial assistance provided through donations.

Eliminating the reduced price category:
Some school districts and states have eliminated the reduced price co-pay for school breakfast and, in some cases, for lunch. The effect has been an increase in participation by students from low-income families. These policies can also help curb unpaid meal charges.

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

The cost of producing a school meal differs 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.

In April 2008, USDA released its School Lunch and Breakfast Cost Study-II, which examined the cost of producing a school meal during school year 2005-06.The study found that, on average, the full cost to produce a reimbursable school lunch was $2.91, exceeding the free lunch subsidy, then $2.51.

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, child care and elder care centers to supply meals.

Breakdown in costs:
The School Lunch and Breakfast Cost Study-II revealed the following average breakdown in costs for producing a school lunch:

Food 37%
Labor/Benefits 48%
Supplies 5%
Other, including Indirect Costs* 10%
Total   100%  

*Indirect costs are paid to the school district for shared expenses such as electricity and custodial 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)
  • Purchased services (contracts with vendors for data processing, consultant fees, custodial, printing, advertising, legal, human resources, etc.)
  • Repair / maintenance
  • Electricity / water / trash removal
  • Transportation / fuel
  • Professional development
  • Marketing / promotion
  • Security services and lunch room supervision

Financial challenges under the new nutrition standards:
In light of rising food costs and the increased cost of producing a school meal to meet updated nutrition standards , school nutrition professionals face a delicate balancing act to keep their programs in the black.  

According to USDA, the new regulations added 10 cents to the cost of preparing every school lunch and 27 cents for every breakfast. To help schools meet the rules, Congress provided school meal programs only 6 additional cents for each lunch and no additional funds for breakfast.  

In an SNA survey, nearly eight in every ten school districts had to take steps to offset financial losses since the new standards were implemented. Actions include reducing staffing, deferring or cancelling equipment investments and diminishing the meal program’s reserve fund, critical for investing in program improvements. 

SNA is calling on Congress to provide increased funding and regulatory flexibility to help school meal programs manage higher costs.

Lunch Period Scheduling

Federal regulations governing NSLP 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.” USDA “encourages 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 get 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.

More detailed data on lunch period length and schedules can be found in USDA’s School Nutrition Dietary Assessment - IV (school year 2009-10).

Benefits of School Meals

Balanced nutrition throughout the day contributes to student success in and out of the classroom. Research demonstrates 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.

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