More than Just Lunch

Nearly one in five children in America live in households without consistent access to adequate food. Every Monday morning, school nutrition professionals witness this hunger on the faces of students eagerly waiting in line for a school breakfast after a long weekend without enough to eat.

Armed with scientific research linking school meals and healthy diets to academic success, school nutrition professionals have worked to expand breakfast programs, launch summer and afterschool meal programs to meet students’ nutritional needs.

Expanding the School Breakfast Program

On average, students who eat school breakfast have been shown to achieve 17.5% higher scores on standardized math tests and attend 1.5 more days of school per year (No Kid Hungry). Unfortunately, tight school bus timetables, late student arrivals and early class schedules can limit participation in traditional cafeteria breakfast programs.

Fortunately, school nutrition professionals are finding creative ways to overcome these barriers. School breakfast participation is increasing through innovative delivery methods, such as grab-and-go service options, which allow students to quickly pick up their meal from the cafeteria or a hallway kiosk on their way to class. Many schools are even serving breakfast in the classroom so students can enjoy a healthy meal during morning announcements.

Summer Meals

Every child deserves a carefree summer vacation, but for many kids, summer break means an end to the free and reduced price school meals they depend on during the school year. Thankfully, in many communities across the nation, school nutrition programs are stepping up to make sure children don’t go hungry this summer.

Through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Summer Food Service Program, schools serving low-income communities can provide free meals and snacks to children at school cafeterias, parks, playgrounds, public housing complexes, summer camps or churches.

Afterschool Snacks and Meals

Through NSLP, more than 25,000 schools and institutions serve healthy snacks to children participating in afterschool activities. Click on the links for more information on afterschool snacks, including a fact sheet detailing reimbursement rates, eligibility and menu requirements. Under the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), eligible sites serve a snack or a meal to children as part of afterschool activities. Visit USDA's CACFP page for more information.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides free fresh fruit and vegetable snacks to students during the school day in elementary schools with high free and reduced price eligibility rates. Participating schools receive between $50 to $75 per student each year.

Economic and Procurement Challenges

School meal programs have always operated on extremely tight budgets. However, persistently high food and labor costs, ongoing procurement challenges and the end of pandemic-era financial assistance have dramatically increased financial pressures.

School meal programs are expected to be self-sustaining, covering their expenses with federal reimbursements and cafeteria sales. In SNA’s 2024 School Nutrition Trends Survey of school meal program directors nationwide, virtually all (99.3%) reported challenges with increasing costs, with 83.9% indicating costs are a significant challenge. Fewer than 1 in 5 indicated the current federal reimbursement rate is sufficient to cover the cost of producing a lunch. When asked about the financial sustainability of their programs in just three years, 91.6% flagged concerns.

Persistent procurement challenges in the specialized K-12 market compound high food costs. With 87.2% of school nutrition directors citing challenges with menu item shortages, limited stock is driving up prices. Additionally, 90.5% of school meal programs grapple with staff shortages. Labor shortages require meal programs, which compete with local restaurants for employees, to increase pay or offer bonuses to attract employees.

Increased reimbursements are crucial to cover costs, enhance menus and support hiring and retention. Without additional support, meal program losses will cut into education budgets, limiting funds for teachers, textbooks, technology and other resources to support learning. SNA’s 2024 Position Paper urges Congress to permanently increase reimbursement rates for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs.

Benefits of School Meals

Balanced nutrition throughout the day contributes to student success in and out of the classroom. New research shows children are getting their healthiest meals at school. Studies have demonstrated 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. Also, hear from Pediatrician Robert Murray (MD, FAAP) about the importance of nutrients to brain and child development, and how healthy school meals build healthier students.

Participation, Meals Served and Program Cost

National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Average Daily Participation

Over 95,000 schools/institutions serve school lunches to 28.6 million students each day, including:

  • 19.0 million free lunches
  • 1.1 million reduced price (student pays $0.40)
  • 8.5 million full price
  • 4.7 billion lunches are served annually

(Source: Preliminary USDA FY 2023 data)

NSLP Annual Cost

17.3 billion in federal dollars, including:

  • 15.8 billion in reimbursements
  • 1.5 billion in commodity costs

(Source: Preliminary USDA FY 2023 data)

School Breakfast Program (SBP) Average Daily Participation

Over 90,000 schools/institutions serve school breakfasts to 14.45 million students each day, including:

  • 11.1 million free breakfasts
  • 0.5 million reduced price (student pays $0.30)
  • 3.1 million full price
  • 2.4 billion breakfasts are served annually

(Source: Preliminary USDA FY 2023 data)

SBP Annual Cost

  • 5.3 billion in federal reimbursements
  • No commodity entitlement

(Source: Preliminary USDA FY 2023 data)

Reimbursement Rates

Federal Reimbursement Rates for SY2023-24:

School meal programs are reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each meal they serve. During SY2022/23, Congress provided an additional 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast under the Keep Kids Fed Act to offset rising costs; however, these extra funds expired on June 30, 2023. Below are reimbursement rates for SY2023/24 for meals served in the contiguous states to students eligible for free meals, reduced price meals, and for students who pay for their meals. Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands receive higher rates. Get further details on reimbursement rates.

NSLP Reimbursement Rates for SY2023-24:

  • Free: $4.25
  • Reduced Price: $3.85
  • Paid: $0.40
  • Most schools are certified to receive an additional performance-based reimbursement of $.08 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 SY 2023-24:

  • Free: $2.28
  • Reduced Price: $1.98
  • Paid: $0.38
  • An additional $0.45 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

Under the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, all 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). 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.

In SY 2024-25, a family of four earning $40,560 a year or less is eligible for free meals and one earning $57,720 or less is eligible for reduced price meals. Get further details on income eligibility, including rates for Alaska and Hawaii.

Families eligible for free or reduced price meals must apply to receive this benefit unless they are categorically eligible for free meals due to their participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or another eligible means tested program.

EXCEPTIONS: Pandemic waivers allowed all schools to offer free meals to all students from March 2020 through June 2022. Since waivers expired, several states dedicated state funds to continue providing free school meals permanently or temporarily. In addition, high-poverty schools enrolled in the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) can offer free meals to all students without an application.

SNA’s 2024 Position Paper urges Congress to offer free school breakfast and lunch to all students nationwide.

School Meal Prices and Unpaid Meals

School meal prices vary widely across the country. Prices are set by local school districts, usually with school board oversight. The following table lists typical prices for paid meals during the 2023-24 school year. The data was collected in SNA’s 2024 School Nutrition Trends Survey, which included responses from 1,343 SNA member school districts nationwide.


Unpaid Meals and Charge Policies

No one wants a child to go hungry or feel shame—especially those working in school cafeterias. School nutrition professionals work throughout the year to enroll struggling families in the free and reduced price meal program and to make the cafeteria a welcoming, safe space for students.

School meals are as critical to learning as textbooks and teachers. To ensure every student is nourished and ready to learn, SNA advocates for providing all students school meals at no charge. Unfortunately, federal school meal funds only cover the full cost of meals served to students eligible for free meals. Schools must charge all other students to cover food, labor and other costs.

USDA regulations require schools to implement unpaid meal policies clarifying what happens when a student cannot pay for a meal. School policies may limit the number of times students can charge a meal or offer students a free, lower-cost alternate meal, such as a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk. USDA requires schools to work to collect any debt incurred from meal charges and prohibits them from using federal funds to pay off unpaid meal debt. When families can’t or don’t pay for meals served, unpaid meal debt can rapidly accumulate, forcing schools to use education funds to cover losses.

However, in SNA’s 2024 School Nutrition Trends Survey, 92.8% of districts that must charge for meals reported that unpaid meal debt is a challenge for their school meal programs, with 58.1% reporting a significant challenge. The overall reported median unpaid meal debt continues to climb compared to prior surveys, with median debt at $5,495 in November 2023 compared to $5,164 the year prior, up from $3,400 at the end of SY 2017-18.

School nutrition professionals work to support families and prevent or minimize student meal charges. Schools assist families completing free and reduced price meal applications, provide online payment and monitoring of account balances, and send low balance notifications through automated phone calls, texts and emails. Many schools also offer financial support through charitable donations.

Other Strategies to Curb Unpaid Meal Charges

Eliminating the reduced price copay

Some low income families, particularly those with multiple school aged children, struggle to afford the daily reduced price copay for school breakfast (30 cents) and lunch (40 cents). Some school districts and states have elected to cover the cost of the reduced price copay to ensure these students receive healthy school meals at no charge. This tactic can reduce unpaid meal charges and increase school meal participation among students from low income families.

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

In light of rising food, supply and labor costs, school nutrition professionals face a delicate balancing act to keep their programs in the black. SNA is calling on Congress to provide increased funding to help school meal programs manage higher costs and successfully implement long-term nutrition regulations.

USDA’s most recent School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study found that the average cost of producing school meals pre-pandemic far exceeded federal per-meal reimbursements, and the average meal program operated at a small deficit. For the typical school meal program, the average reported cost to produce a school lunch exceeded the average free lunch subsidy by 49 cents and the average reported cost to produce a school breakfast exceeded the average free breakfast subsidy by 84 cents. SNA’s 2024 School Nutrition Trends Survey indicates costs have risen substantially in recent years.

Costs differ 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. 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 and child care or elder care centers to supply meals.

Breakdown in Costs

The School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study revealed the following average breakdown in costs for producing a school lunch:

Other direct costs (supplies, contracted services, equipment, utilities, etc.)9.5%
Indirect Costs*1.3%

*Indirect costs are paid to the school district for the use of facilities, administrative support or other 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)
  • Repair / maintenance
  • Purchased services (contracts with vendors for data processing, consultant fees, custodial, printing, advertising, legal, human resources, etc.)
  • Technology (point of sale systems, nutrient analysis and menu planning software, inventory tracking and online payment systems)
  • Electricity / water / trash removal
  • Transportation / fuel
  • Professional development
  • Marketing/promotion
  • Security services and lunch room supervision

Lunch Period Scheduling

Federal regulations 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.” These regulations also encourage 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 select 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.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 research brief, Making Time for School Lunch, recommends that students have “at least 20 minutes once they are seated (seat time).” SNA has called on the US Departments of Agriculture and Education to work with school meal programs in developing best practices and guidance to ensure students have adequate time to eat healthy school meals.