School Nutrition » School Nutrition Q&A

School Nutrition Q&A

What is the National School Lunch Program?

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in over 100,000 public and non‐profit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provided nutritionally balanced, low‐cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day in 2012. In 1998, Congress expanded the National School Lunch Program to include reimbursement for snacks served to children in after school educational and enrichment programs to include children through 18 years of age. The Food and Nutrition Service administers the program at the Federal level. At the State level,the National School Lunch Program is usually administered by State education agencies, which operate the program through agreements with school food authorities.

How does the National School Lunch Program work?

Generally, public or nonprofit private schools of high school grade or under and public or nonprofit private residential child care institutions may participate in the school lunch program.School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the lunch program get cash subsidies and USDA foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet Federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children. School food authorities can also be reimbursed for snacks served to children through age 18 in after school educational or enrichment programs.

Modified Diets

What do I do if my child has diet restrictions?

Have the child’s doctor write the specific diet order that is to be followed. Provide the information to the school nurse and School Nutrition Manager (SNM) at the school. The SNM will work with our central office staff to make any menu modifications or special orders that may be required. The parents will be contacted if further information is needed.

New Meal Pattern

What are the nutritional requirements for school lunches?

School lunches must meet meal pattern and nutrition standards based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The current meal pattern increases the availability of fruits,vegetables, and whole grains in the school menu. The meal pattern’s dietary specifications set specific calorie limits to ensure age-appropriate meals for grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12. Other meal enhancements include gradual reductions in the sodium content of the meals (sodium targets must be reached by SY 2014-15, SY 2017-18 and SY 2022-23). While school lunches must meet Federal meal requirements, decisions about what specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities.

Why is my child asked to take extra items if he/she doesn’t plan to eat them?

Students must choose three of four items offered at breakfast and three of five items offered at lunch for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to consider it a complete meal. The USDA requires a complete meal be taken in order for School Nutrition Services to receive reimbursement. It is also important for children to take a full meal in order to meet recommended nutrient needs.

Free and Reduced

How do children qualify for free and reduced price meals?

Any child at a participating school may purchase a meal through the National School Lunch Program. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced‐price meals, for which students can be charged no more than $.40. Children from families with incomes over 185 percent of poverty pay a full price, though their meals are still subsidized to some extent. Local school food authorities set their own prices for full‐price (paid) meals, but must operate their meal services as non‐profit programs.

How do I apply for free and reduced price meals?

You can now apply for free and reduced price meals online at If you are unable to complete an application online or prefer to complete a paper application you can pick up an application at your school's front office.

Do I need to fill out an application for each child in my household?

NO. Complete one application for all students and other family members living in your household.

Is my foster child included on the same application with the rest of my children?

YES. Foster children should be included on the same application with the rest of your children and family members living in your household.

If I don’t qualify now, may I apply later?

YES. You may apply at any time during the school year if your household size goes up, income goes down, or if you start getting Food Stamps, TANF or other benefits.

Who should I include as members of my household?

You should include yourself, your biological and foster children, and all other individuals living in your household, related or not (grandparents, relatives, or friends).

What do I do with the application for free and reduced meals once it is completed?

You may return completed applications to the school cafeteria manager or the School Nutrition office for faster processing.

We are required to receive the original application for processing. We cannot accept applications by phone or fax.

I completed an application last year and was approved for benefits. Do I have to fill out another application?

YES. The federal government requires a new application to be completed at the start of each new school year.

How long does it take for my free and reduced price meal application to be processed?

All free and reduced price meal applications must be processed within 10 days of the receipt of a completed application.

For additional information on the operation of the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, along with additional School Nutrition Programs, contact the State agency in your state that is responsible for the administration of the programs. A listing of all our State agencies may be found on our web site at select your State from the drop down box and select “apply.”You may also contact us through the Communication Division at 703‐305‐2281, or by mail at 3101 Park Center Drive, Suite 926, Alexandria, Virginia 22302.


In accordance with Federal civil rights law and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) civil rights regulations and policies, the USDA, its Agencies, offices, and employees, and institutions participating in or administering USDA programs are prohibited from discriminating based on race, color, national origin, sex, religious creed, disability, age, political beliefs, or reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity in any program or activity conducted or funded by USDA. 


Persons with disabilities who require alternative means of communication for program information (e.g. Braille, large print, audiotape, American Sign Language, etc.), should contact the Agency (State or local) where they applied for benefits.  Individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing or have speech disabilities may contact USDA through the Federal Relay Service at (800) 877-8339.  Additionally, program information may be made available in languages other than English.


To file a program complaint of discrimination, complete the USDA Program Discrimination Complaint Form, (AD-3027) found online at: How to File a Complaint, and at any USDA office, or write a letter addressed to USDA and provide in the letter all of the information requested in the form. To request a copy of the complaint form, call (866) 632-9992.  Submit your completed form or letter to USDA by:


(1)        mail: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, D.C. 20250-9410;


(2)        fax: (202) 690-7442; or


(3)        email:


This institution is an equal opportunity provider.