In fiscal year 2021, the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch dropped to 11 million due to school closures during by the pandemic. Despite this, the percentage of all students getting meals through the program rose over the past four years. In FY 2022, 94.8% of all National School Lunch Program (NSLP) students received a free lunch, up 26.4 percentage points from fiscal year 2019. This increase is partly attributed to a pandemic waiver that allowed all students to receive free meals.
Which students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch?
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the NSLP at the federal level, and nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools participate in the program.
NSLP eligibility remained consistent for the 2023 school year: A student from a household with an income at or below 130% of the poverty income threshold qualifies for free lunch. In addition, some groups of children — such as foster children and children participating in the Head Start and Migrant Education programs — are also eligible for free lunches through the National School Lunch Program. A student from a household earning between 130% and 185% of the poverty threshold qualifies for a reduced-price lunch.
The percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch is often used to measure how many students live in poverty.
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How many kids are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches?
According to US Census data, about 35.9 million children received a school lunch in FY 2021. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 43% of US public school students attend schools where a majority of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Of this group, the percentage of students who attended high-poverty schools was highest among Hispanic students (38%), Black students (37%), and American Indian/Alaska Native students (30%).
How did pandemic-related initiatives impact the availability of free school lunches?
As a part of the government’s effort to feed children during the pandemic, the USDA allowed all public school students to get free school breakfast and lunch, no matter their family’s income. As a result, 98.8% of school lunches were free in FY 2021. However, the total number of lunches served in FY 2021 (2,154,813,015) was 56% lower than in FY 2019.
The free meal program ended at the close of the 2021-22 school year, but participation in the NSLP remains high. About 95% of lunches remain free, and the total number of lunches served in FY2022 exceeded the number served in FY 2019.
In response to the continued demand for free school lunch once pandemic-related school closures ended, some jurisdictions have passed legislation to extend free school meals, regardless of family income. These include:
The proposed Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 would permanently allow all K-12 students to receive free school meals regardless of family income. The bill has yet to pass in either chamber of Congress.
Which states had the largest changes in free school lunch availability during the pandemic?
The number of NSLP lunches served has rebounded and most states now register greater student participation. In total, 34 states and Washington, DC, reported an increase in students participating in the National School Lunch Program between fiscal years 2019 and 2022.
States with the largest drops in NSLP participation since fiscal year 2019 include Louisiana (-10.1%), Hawaii (-9.2%), and New Mexico (-8.5%).
In addition to increased participants, 10 states and Washington, DC, recorded a greater than 10% increase in total lunches served through the program. Many of these locations also had the highest percentage increases in the number of lunches served, including New Jersey, which served nearly 30 million more free NSLP lunches in fiscal year 2022 than in fiscal year 2019.
States that registered decreases in the number of lunches served through NSLP since fiscal year 2019 include Hawaii (-10.4%), West Virginia (-8.8%), and Kentucky (-8.3%).
How have free school lunches affected food-insecure households?
The USDA reports that about one in 10 US households are food insecure, meaning they sometimes have difficulty providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources. However, food insecurity in households with children declined by 2.3% during the pandemic. Between April 2020 and August 2021, when the USDA implemented a pandemic relief policy, food insecurity in these households fell by about seven percentage points, according to the Census Bureau.
Fiscal year means a period of 12 calendar months beginning October 1 of any year and ending with September 30 of the following year — for example, "fiscal year 2022" is a measure of October 1, 2021 through September 30, 2022.