I am a (former) state-level administrator of the National School Lunch Program. Ask me anything!
Proof - this was my badge from the last in-person conference that I attended with USDA. I worked for a State Agency administering Child Nutrition programs at the state level.
I've seen several posts around Reddit discussing school lunches in the United States. Many people don't understand the massive amount of regulation around this program, so I'd like to provide an opportunity to educate the community!
At the federal level, the USDA administers three primary Child Nutrition programs:
- The National School Lunch Program (and School Breakfast Program, which is technically separate but very similar and generally operated in conjunction with the NSLP) provides reimbursement payments to schools and residential child care institutions for meals served during the school day
- The Child and Adult Care Food Program provides reimbursement payments to non-residential care programs for children as well as adults over 60 or adults with disabilities
- The Summer Food Service Program provides reimbursement payments to schools or non-profit organizations who provide meals in eligible areas when school is not in session. This is generally during the summer months, but can also apply during periods of emergency closure.
Each state has an agency designated to administer these programs at the state level. Some states combine administration into a single agency (generally Education or Agriculture) while some states divide the programs among multiple agencies. The state agencies are the ones who implement, monitor and assess the programs within the state.
Here are some common questions and answers about the NSLP:
Is pizza really a vegetable?
Sometimes. It depends on the quantity/quality of the sauce. The most common frozen ones made for the NSLP will count as 1/8 cup serving (2 Tablespoons) of red/orange vegetables
What's the deal with "lunch debt"
The NSLP regulations are kind of complicated here. Schools must maintain a dedicated "Nonprofit school food service account" (NSFSA). All program revenue (federal reimbursement payments along with reduced/full-price and a la carte meal payments) must stay in the NSFSA and be used solely to operate and improve the food service program.
If a student accrues unpaid meal charges, those charges are owed to the NSFSA. If a school cannot collect those unpaid charges from the student's family then the school must reimburse the NSFSA from another source of non-federal funds.
This leaves schools in a very difficult position - do you get the bad press from serving alternate lunches to kids with unpaid debt or do you get the bad press from trying to find funds to reimburse the NSFSA?
Why can't we just give free lunches to everybody?
Because the current regulations impose an income test and specifically disallow schools from subsidizing the price of meals for students who don't qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Legislative change would be required for this. Schools are currently able to offer free meals to all students thanks to flexibilities and additional funding granted through various COVID relief acts.