School Meal Programs

The School Breakfast Program is just one of the many food programs for qualifying school-aged children under the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Through this program, qualifying low-income children receive free or low-cost breakfast foods during the school year. Additionally, the National School Lunch Program provides low-income students with free or affordable lunches during the school year. To qualify for these programs, however, children must reside in a low-income household.

Moreover, the Summer Lunch Program is available to school-aged children during the summer months, as this program provides beneficiaries with free or low-cost meals when school is out of session. While these children may benefit from other food assistance programs during the school year, this program ensures that no child goes hungry during the summer months. To learn more about these school meal programs, review the sections below.

The School Breakfast Program

The National School Breakfast Program (SBP) is a federally-funded program that provides children with free or low-cost breakfasts at participating charter schools, public and private schools and childcare institutions. If a school or childcare center participates in the program, the institution must serve breakfast foods that comply with federal nutrition requirements, and these meals must be free or low in cost.

To qualify for the National SBP Program and other school meal programs, children must reside in a household that meets income restrictions, or they must be “categorically eligible” to participate. For instance, children who participate in the Head Start Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or other state- or federally funded programs may be categorically eligible for free breakfasts during the school year. Homeless, runaway, migrant or foster children may also have categorical eligibility for free school meals.

Related Article: Food Stamps Eligibility Guidelines

To participate in the School Breakfast Program, children must also reside in a low-income household that earns a salary of no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). If children live in a household with an income that ranges between 130 and 185 percent of the FPL, however, they may obtain discounted meals. As part of this program, the school or childcare center cannot charge more than $0.30 per discounted meal.

The National School Lunch Program

The School Lunch Program is another federally-assisted program that benefits school-aged children who reside in low-income households. When the Federal School Lunch Program began in 1946, approximately 7.1 million school-aged children received free or low-cost lunches. By 1970, the program assisted around 22.4 million children, followed by 26.6 million students in 1980. However, the number of program participants continues to grow. In 2016, the program served around 30.4 million children nationwide.

Also known as NSLP, this program for school-aged children provides qualifying beneficiaries with nutritious, well-balanced meals that help them to perform better in school. Additionally, qualifying children who enroll in participating childcare institutions or public and private schools receive these lunches for free or at reduced rates. However, these meals must meet federal nutrition requirements, and schools may not charge more than $0.40 per lunch. In some cases, children may receive free lunches if their household income falls below 130 percent of the FPL.

The Summer Lunch Program

The Summer Food Service Program (also known as SFSP) is available to supplement the diets of school-aged children and teens during their summer break from school. As part of this Summer Food Service, authorized providers in low-income areas throughout the U.S. provide qualifying children with nutritionally-balanced lunches and snacks until they return to school. These providers often include government agencies, school districts, nonprofit organizations and other approved sponsors.

Moreover, several types of Summer Lunch Program meal sites are available to qualifying children. These include the following:

  • Open sites are available in low-income areas where at least 50 percent of the children reside in a household that earns a salary of less than 185 percent of the FPL. These sites provide children with summer meals at no charge. For assistance in finding an open site, families may contact the National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY or 1-877-8-HAMBRE, or they may use the Summer Meal Site Finder on the USDA
  • Enrolled sites may provide children with free summer meals as well. However, participants must enroll in a summer activity program at the site, and at least 50 percent of the children must qualify for free or reduced-rate school meals. Families can find an enrolled site in their area by contacting a local organization that offers summer activities. These often include churches, schools and recreation or community centers.

While Summer Lunch Service beneficiaries typically receive between one and two meals per day, sites that serve migrant children may provide participants with as many as three meals per day. Then, the USDA reimburses the providers that choose to participate in the program. Moreover, camp sites may choose to participate in the program as well, but the camp will only be reimbursed for the free or low-cost meals they serve to qualifying low-income children.

To participate in the SFSP Summer Lunch Program, children must reside in low-income households and be younger than 18 years of age. In some cases, children with physical or mental disabilities may participate if they are older than 18 years of age.

Where can I learn more about these school breakfast and lunch programs?

To learn more about these national school meal programs, applicants must contact the local State Agency that administers these benefits. To find a local agency, refer to the following chart:

State Telephone Number State Telephone Number State Telephone


AL 334-242-1988 KY 502-564-5625 OK 405-521-3327
AK 907-465-8712 LA 225-342-3720 OR 503-947-5600
AZ 602-542-8700 MA 781-338-6480 OH 877-644-6338
AR 501-371-1400 MD 410-767-0199 PA 800-331-0129
CA 800-952-5609 ME 207-624-6875 PR 787-773-6273
CO 303-866-6661 MI 517-241-5373 RI 401-222-4600
CT 860-807-2050 MN 651-582-8526 SC 803-734-8205
DE 302-857-3356 MS 601-576-5000 SD 605-773-3413
DC 202-727-1839 MO 573-751-6269 TN 615-313-4749
FL 800-504-6609 MT 406-444-2502 TX 877-839-6325
GA 404-656-5957 NE 402-471-2488 UT 801-538-7513
GU 671-300-1267 NV 775-353-3625 VT 802-479-1360
HI 808-587-3600 NH 603-271-3860 VI 340-774-0100, ext. 2811
ID 208-332-6820 NJ 609-984-0692 VA 804-225-2074
IL 217-782-2491 NM 505-827-9961 WA 360-725-6218
IN 317-232-0850 NY 518-473-8781 WV 304-558-2708
IA 515-281-4757 NC 919-807-3505 WI 608-267-9123
KS 785-296-2276 ND 701-328-4565 WY 307-857-9269


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