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School Food Programs - Early Lunch Programs, The National School Lunch Program, More Recent Program Changes, NSLP Payment Rates

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Food service programs have long been recognized as important components of education in the American schools. "You can't teach a hungry child" has been an accepted principle since the early years of the country, when children were expected to bring lunches from home to get them through the day. However, not all children were able to do so because of financial and other circumstances. In addition, the food brought from home was often lacking in nutritional quality and desirability, and the schools usually lacked the facilities to store milk and other perishable food products. At the same time, food supplies in this country have usually been abundant and, at least during recessionary periods, in excess of market demands.

Particularly during the 1930s, farmers faced extremely low prices and excess food supplies while people were literally starving. Children were perceived as being in critical need of food support. To solve both problems, the Congress passed Public Law 74-320, authorizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to purchase surplus agricultural commodities and distribute them to needy families and specifically to school lunch programs. At the same time, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in 1935, provided labor and trained supervisory personnel for staffing school lunch program on a national scale.

Early Lunch Programs

Precedents for school lunch programs date back to the mid-nineteenth century in England and western Europe. In 1849, school canteens were established in France, and in 1866 the Destitute Diner Society was established in London. By the beginning of the twentieth century, most western European countries had national laws or extensive municipal legislation providing for school meals.

In 1853, the Children's Aid Society of New York served food to all children who attended its industrial schools, which later became public schools. Serving food became an inducement to children from the slums to attend school. In the economic downturn of 1893, the problem of hungry school children came to public attention. The conviction arose that children in a weak physical and mental state resulting from poverty learned little or nothing at school.

The Star Center Association began school food service in Philadelphia elementary schools in 1894. In 1909, the Philadelphia Board of Education took over all school food service in secondary schools, making Philadelphia the first large city to establish central food control. School lunch programs increased rapidly in the 1920s, as new knowledge of nutrition led to greater concern for the health of children. As a result, the purpose of school food service broadened from provision for the needy and undernourished to provision for all children who need food at school.

The National School Lunch Program

During World War II, many U.S. draftees were found to be malnourished to such an extent that they were turned down for military service. The realization of this low nutritional state of the general population led to the passage of the National School Lunch Act (NSLA) in 1946, which established the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in elementary and secondary schools. This landmark legislation, although amended many times, continues in force today, with its original objectives still in place. These objectives are "to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children, and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food."

The NSLA provided annual appropriations to the USDA to purchase surplus foods and apportion them to state agencies, along with certain funds that were to be matched three-to-one with state funds or volunteer labor. Commodities and funds were provided to state educational agencies and to other non-profit agencies participating in the program (private schools in about twenty-five states that could not transmit funds through their state educational agency). These agencies managed the lunch programs at the local level, and sometimes added state funds. They were provided with state operating expenses that covered part, but not all, of their own expenses, also on an apportionment basis. Apportionments after 1962 were made on the basis of state level of participation during the previous year and per capita state incomes relative to the U.S. total. Nonfood assistance for the purchase of food service equipment was also provided selectively in low-income areas by grants authorized by the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (Pub. L. 89-642).

The Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA operates the NSLP at the national level, and the individual states must sign agreements to operate the program in accordance with the regulations to receive federal reimbursements for meals served. Normally, the state educational agency is responsible for operating the program at the state level. More than 97,700 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child-care institutions operated the program in fiscal year 2002. Among the important requirements for operating the program, NSLP meals served at the local level are required to meet nutritional standards specified in the NSLA. Those requirements originally were called the Type A lunch pattern (as opposed to Type B, which consisted only of milk). That term, while still in use locally in many places, was replaced in the 1970s with USDA menupattern, which refers to service of specified portions of meat, milk, vegetables or fruits, and bread. The legislation recognized that federal support was only supplemental to total costs, and therefore it was expected that meals would be sold at cost to the children that could afford to pay, while low-income children would receive their lunches free.

More Recent Program Changes

Three key changes have been made in the funding and operations of the NSLP: (1) Public Law 91-248, enacted in 1971, specified that federal dollar appropriations apportioned to the states for the program's operation were to be replaced with a federal reimbursement entitlement of a certain number of cents in cash and another entitlement value of commodities for each meal served that meets requirements. Funds and commodities provided per meal are updated annually based on changes in prices of food-away-from-home, as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Thus, the program was transformed into an ongoing, performance-based federal obligation. (2) With the same legislation, the federal government assumed the obligation for the full cost of all meals served to needy children, with entitlements updated annually based on price changes reflected in the CPI. Eligibility for free or reduced-price meals was specified by law and measured in accordance with the Federal Income Poverty Guidelines. These guidelines are also updated each year, based on changes in the CPI. (3) In 1995, nutritional requirements were changed from specifying the service of specified portions of specified kinds of food to the requirement that nutritional meals needed to be provided (Pub. L. 103-448). These requirements are tied to the service of meals that meet one-third of the daily Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs), as specified by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Another change occurred in 1998 when Congress expanded the NSLP to include reimbursement for the service of snacks in after-school, educational, and enrichment programs to students up to eighteen years of age. Organized sports activities with limited eligibility of student participation do not qualify for support.

NSLP Payment Rates

In school year 2001–2002, all qualified meals served, regardless of the income level of the students' parents, were reimbursed at 20 cents per meal. But if the meals were served in relatively low-income districts, these meals received an extra 2 cents reimbursement. The qualification of "low-income district" is measured by the percentage of free or reduced-price meals served in the district two years previously. If more than 60 percent of the meals served went to students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, the district gets the extra 2 cents. If the number is less that 60 percent, they get only the basic reimbursement level.

For student meals served free to qualifying low-income students, an additional federal reimbursement of $1.89 was made, for a total, including the above 20 or 22 cents, of $2.09 or $2.11 per meal depending on whether the meals were served in low-income areas. Reduced-price meals were reimbursed at 40 cents per meal less than for free meals. In total, reduced-price meals were reimbursed at $1.69 or $1.71, depending on the income level of the location served.

The above rates were the same in each of the forty-eight contiguous states and the District of Columbia. Higher rates were paid for meals served in Alaska and Hawaii, in recognition of their higher costs. All meals served in Alaska in 2001–2002 received 32 or 34 cents reimbursement. Free meals received a total of $3.38 or $3.40, and reduced-price meals received a total of $2.98 or $3.00. In Hawaii, the rates were 23 or 25 cents for all meals, for a total of $2.44 or $2.46 for free meals and $2.04 or $2.06 for reduced-price meals, depending on the income criteria. Note that the 2-cent differential for income level of the district was the same as in the 48 states, and the 40-cent differential between free and reduced-price meals was maintained.

The above payment rates increase by law each year, as noted above. The average increase for school year 2001–2002 year was 2.85 percent, reflecting price increases over the previous year.

In addition to the above cash payments, schools also receive in-kind commodity support. They received an entitlement level of 15.5 cents worth of foods in 2001–2002 for all meals served. These foods are purchased and distributed to the states by the USDA. The types of foods purchased are determined in consultation with the states to be those preferred by program operators, based on feedback from children's preferences. In addition, a variable amount of bonus foods are provided when foods are in surplus from an agricultural supply perspective. The entitlement level of 15.5 cents increases each year based on wholesale food-price increases as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Free and Reduced-Price Lunches

Since 1971, free lunches have been available to all children from households with incomes below 100 percent (or more) of the Income Eligibility Guidelines, which were patterned after the Income Poverty Guidelines published by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In August 1981, the level of eligibility for free lunches was raised to 130 percent of the guidelines, and reduced-price meals were made available to all children from households with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the Guidelines.

In school year 2001–2002, these guidelines provided free meals to students from four-person households with annual cash incomes (before taxes and other deductions) below $22,945 in the forty-eight contiguous states and the District of Columbia. Income levels varied by household size, and were about 25 percent higher in Alaska and 15 percent higher in Hawaii. Reduced-price meals were available to students from four-person households with incomes below $32,653 in the forty-eight states, with similar adjustments by household size and for Alaska and Hawaii. The numbers for 2001–2002 were raised by 3.52 percent from the previous year, based on CPI price changes measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In order to receive free or reduced-price lunches, a household must return applications sent home with students each Fall soon after school begins. Applications include household income levels, which are used to determine the income criteria given above. Every attempt is made to keep applications confidential, as well as the daily service to students of the free or reduced-price meals. Often, meal coupons are used for this purpose; they are purchased by those paying for their meals and provided free or at reduced price to qualifying students.

All meals are provided free to students in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Federal reimbursements are based on incomes of households with students, using the forty-eight-state eligibility levels as a benchmark.

Nutrient Standards

Public Law 103-448, passed in November 1995, offered three alternative ways of meeting the new menu standards: (1) NuMenus, or Nutrient Standard Menu Planning (NSMP); (2) Assisted Nu-Menus, which provides outside assistance in conducting NSMP; and (3) Food-Based Menu Planning, which consists of a modified set of foods from the traditional USDA menu-planning system. A fourth menu planning system was authorized by the Healthy Meals for Children Act (Pub. L. 104-149), which was passed in May 1996. This system provides a further option that allows schools additional freedom in using various food-based menu planning systems, as long as they ended up meeting the basic nutrient standards.

Even though much flexibility is provided in menu planning, the nutrient-based requirements of Public Law 103-448 remain in effect. Once every five years, each school district is monitored by the state agency, and a week of menus is evaluated for conformance in meeting the nutrient standards. These standards consist of specified levels of energy (calories), fat and saturated fat, protein, calcium, iron, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C. The levels are specified as averages for kindergarten through sixth grade, and for seventh through twelfth grades.

The School Breakfast Program

The School Breakfast Program (SBP) is a federal nonprofit entitlement program that operates independently of, but alongside, the NSLP. It began as a pilot program in 1966, authorized by the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, and was made permanent in 1975. The original purpose of the program was to primarily to provide breakfasts to elementary and secondary school children coming from poor economic areas, and to those traveling long distances to school. After becoming permanent, the program has been equally available to all eligible children. However, reimbursement rates favor those areas in severe need, which are those districts serving a relatively large share of meals at free or reduced prices.

The program is similarly administered at the federal level by the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA, and usually at the state level by state education agencies. It is still not as broadly available as the NSLP, but operates nationally in 72,000 schools and institutions. All meals served under SBP must meet the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In addition, they must provide one-fourth of the daily recommended levels of calories and RDAs for protein, calcium, iron, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C.

Any child at a school with an approved program may purchase breakfasts under the program, and those meeting NSLP requirements may also receive free or reduced-price breakfasts. However, the preponderance of those participating receive their meals free or at reduced prices, which reflects the original purposes of the program. As in the case of lunches, funds for SBP were initially allocated on a state-by-state basis, with a basic grant of $50,000 per state. The program was later turned into a federal entitlement, with meals reimbursed on the basis of the number of meals served.

Paid breakfasts were reimbursed by the federal government at 21 cents in school year 2001–2002, one cent more than for paid lunches served under NSLP. Free breakfasts received $1.15 and reduced-price breakfasts received 85 cents under the regular program. However, districts classified as in severe need received $1.37 for free breakfasts and $1.07 for reduced-price meals–two-thirds of the total breakfasts served usually meet this criterion. As in the case of lunches, Alaska and Hawaii receive higher reimbursement levels for all breakfasts served.

There have long been strong feelings that the breakfast program provides key nutritional benefits to schoolchildren, perhaps even greater than those provided by the lunch program. In part, these feelings reflect the fact that the lack of breakfast can adversely affect student performance until lunch is served at school. However, no known studies have established a firm basis for this conclusion. The 1992 School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study found that the availability of a SBP at school did not increase the likelihood of a child eating breakfast. This 1992 study confirmed an earlier study of data from the 1980–1981 National Evaluation of School Nutrition Programs that had found the same result. However, a 1998 Mathematica Policy Research study showed that these conclusions depended heavily on the content definition of a breakfast. The 1992 study defined breakfast as eating any food containing at least fifty calories. The conclusion was that if a breakfast was defined to require the serving of more substantial nutrients, then the SBP would be found to be more useful. Partly for this reason, Congress, in 1998, funded a three-year evaluation of a pilot program in which all children would receive free breakfasts regardless of household income.

The Special Milk Program

The Special Milk Program (SMP) provides federal reimbursements for milk (alone) served to children in nonprofit schools and child-care institutions that


do not participate in other federal food service programs. These would include schools without NSLP or SMP food service, as well as those with half-day kindergarten programs where children do not have access to the lunch or breakfast program. The SMP program has declined slightly in scope over time as the NSLP and SBP have expanded, but the SMP has remained a viable niche program. In 2000-2001, SMP milk was served in nearly 7,000 schools and residential child-care institutions, along with 1,100 summer camps and 500 nonresidential child-care institutions.

Those schools or institutions that participate in SMP offer milk on a paid or free basis using the same criteria of eligibility as under the NSLP. Reimbursements of paid milk are made on the basis of the number of half-pints of milk served. In 2001–2002, schools received 14.5 cents per half pint. But for free milk served, they are reimbursed at the net purchase price for the milk. Various kinds of milk–flavored or unflavored, low-fat or whole milk–are eligible to be served.

After-School Care Program

The After-School Snack Program, which began in 1998, must operate under the school food authority that operates the NSLP. It must provide children with regularly scheduled educational or enrichment activities in an organized, structured, and supervised environment to be eligible for federal reimbursements. It also must be located in a geographic area served by a school in which 50 percent or more of the children enrolled are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

Reimbursement rates for 2001–2002 were 55 cents for free snacks, 27 cents for those at reduced price, and 5 cents for those paid. Rates were higher for Alaska and Hawaii, where free snacks were reimbursed at 93 cents and 67 cents, respectively.

Participation and Costs of School Food Service

Table 1 shows the average daily participation, by payment categories, in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program for fiscal years 1981, 1991, and 2001. The data represent sums of monthly averages of participation reported by the states, averaged for the federal fiscal years for the months of October through May, plus September. Participation is defined as the number of meals per enrolled student, adjusted for absenteeism.

One can readily see that participation in the NSLP increased slightly between 1981 and 2001, and that the increase in participation is centered on free or reduced-price meal participants. Paid meal participation declined 10 percent. In terms of percentages, the reduced-price category increased the most (more than one-third) but it remained less than 10 percent of total participation. Paid lunch participation accounted for less than one-half (44 percent) of the total in 2001.

In contrast, the SBP increased quite substantially over the two decades. In fact, total participation doubled. This growth was no accident, for considerable attention was focused on growing the School Breakfast Program during this period. Free meals dominate the program, accounting for nearly three-fourths of the total in 2001. Reduced-price participants accounted for another 9 percent, leaving paid participants at 17 percent. SBP participation was small in 2001 in relation to the NSLP, at less than one-third the total number of participants.

Table 2 shows the federal costs of the NSLP and SMP, in millions of dollars, again for fiscal years 1981, 1991, and 2001. Total federal costs for the NSLP doubled over the two decades, with most of the increase in terms of cash payments. Commodity costs increased only slightly, and they included bonus commodities that had shrunk considerably,


accounting for only $60 million in 2001, compared with $316 million in 1981. Entitlement commodities increased from $579 million to $802 million over this period. Federal SBP costs increased more than four times over the 20 years, reflecting increases in participation, as well as an increase in reimbursements per meal.

Not included in Table 2 are the costs of the SMP and a relatively small program that provides only commodities to some schools not participating in NSLP. The federal SMP cost $15.4 million in 2001, down from $19.8 million in 1981. During this period the number of half-pints of milk served declined from 177 million to 115 million in FY 2001. The commodity-only program cost $23.3 million in 2001, compared with $21.9 million a decade earlier.

The data in this section were obtained from unpublished sources from the Food and Nutrition Service of USDA (Program Information Reports). However, the primary data were published annually for 1981 through 1995 in the School Food Service Re-search Review.

Related Food Programs

Child and adult care programs and summer food service programs supported by USDA reimbursements may operate in school locations. These programs are very substantial in many areas, but they are not included in this discussion because they are not directly supporting school educational programs.


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BRYAN, MARY DE GARMO. 1971. "School Food Programs: Overview." In The Encyclopedia of Education, 1st edition. New York: Macmillan.

DEVANEY, BARBARA, and FRAKER, THOMAS. 1989. "Dietary Impacts of the School Breakfast Program." American Journal of Agricultural Economics 71 (4):932–948.

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HIEMSTRA, STEPHEN J. 1995. "Summary of Trends." School Food Service Research Review 19 (1):51–53.

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MATHEMATICA POLICY RESEARCH, INC. 1998. Eating Breakfast: Effects of the School Breakfast Program. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL. 1989. Recommended Dietary Allowances, 10th revised edition. Washington DC: National Academy Press.

PARGO, JOHN. 1906. Underfed School Children: The Problem and the Remedy. Chicago: C. H. Kerr.

TODHUNTER, E. NEIGE. 1968. "Approaches to Nutrition Education." Journal of Nutrition Education, prototype issue.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, FOOD AND NUTRITION SERVICE. 1996. Healthy School Meals Training. Alexandria, VA: USDA.

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