School Meal Trends & Stats
Participation, Meals Served and Program CostNational School Lunch Program (NSLP) Average Daily Participation:
Nearly 100,000 schools/institutions serve school lunches to 30.5 million students each day, including:
- 19.8 million free lunches
- 2.2 million reduced price (student pays $.40)
- 8.5 million full price
- 5 billion lunches are served annually
NSLP Annual Cost:
12.99 billion in federal dollars, including:
- 11.69 billion in reimbursements
- 1.3 billion in commodity costs
School Breakfast Program (SBP) Average Daily Participation:
Over 90,000 schools/institutions serve school breakfasts to 14 million students each day, including:
- 11 million free breakfasts
- 0.9 million reduced price (student pays $.30)
- 2.1 million full price
- 2.3 billion breakfasts are served annually
SBP Annual Cost:
- 3.88 billion in federal reimbursements
- No commodity entitlement
Reimbursement RatesFederal Reimbursement Rates for the 2015-16 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. Click here for further details.
NSLP Reimbursement Rates for the 2015-16 School Year:
- Free: $3.07
- Reduced Price: $2.67
- Paid: $0.29
- Schools certified as meeting the new nutrition standards receive an additional $.06 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.
- Free: $1.66
- Reduced Price: $1.36
- Paid: $0.29
- An additional $.30 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 MealsChildren 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. For the 2015-2016 school year, 130% of the poverty level is $31,525 for a family of four and 185% is $44,863.
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.
School Meal PricesSchool 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 2013-14 school year. The data was collected in SNA’s State of School Nutrition 2014 survey, which included responses from 1,102 SNA member school districts nationwide.
With rising school meal prices and tough economic conditions, some families struggle to cover the cost of school meals. Many school meal programs have experienced an increase in the number of children who “charge” their school meals when parents fail to pay for school breakfast or lunch. In SNA’s State of School Nutrition 2014 survey, nearly 71% of school districts reported that their meal program had unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2012-13 school year.
Some schools have accumulated substantial unpaid meal debts and have been forced to establish policies to address students who cannot pay for their meal and are not enrolled in the free or reduced price meal program. Policies may limit the number of times students can charge a meal or offer an alternate meal, such as a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk.
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.
Universal free meals:
Some schools and districts with very high percentages of low-income students offer “universal free meals.” Allowing all students to receive free meals ensures all students have access to healthy meals while reducing program administrative costs.
Cost to Produce School MealsThe 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 $2.495.
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:
|Other, including Indirect Costs*||10%|
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
In light of rising food costs and the increased cost of producing a school meal to meet new 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 recent SNA survey, nearly eight in every ten school districts have 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 SchedulingFederal regulations governing NSLP state that “Schools must offer lunches between 10 am and 2 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 2014 survey, which included responses from 1,102 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 new 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).
Participation, Meals Served and Program Cost
Eligibility for Free and Reduced Price Meals
School Meal Prices
Cost to Produce School Meals
Lunch Period Scheduling
School Lunch Software