National School Lunch Program Reauthorization

The National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs provide millions of meals every day to the nation's disadvantaged children. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is trying to close loopholes that still allow unhealthy food onto school plates.

   Download the PDF Version of this Report, Including the Table

The National School Lunch Program, which is up for reauthorization by Congress this year, is a major source of nutrition for millions of American children:

  • During the 2008 fiscal year, more than 5 billion lunches were served through the program. Half of them were free to the students and another 10 percent were at a reduced price.1
  • Nearly 2 billion breakfasts were served during the same time frame through the program.
  • A total of 71 percent of them were free and another 10 percent provided at a reduced price.
  • Sixty percent of the students receiving free lunches live in households with incomes below 130 percent of the federal poverty level. The meals they receive at school account for a significant portion of all calories they will eat in a day.2

Although the Department of Agriculture sets guidelines on what kinds of food may be served through the program, they do little to limit high-fat, high-sugar foods and many schools are not meeting the requirements:

  • Foods of minimal nutritional value cannot be sold in the food service area during meal times. What qualifies as minimal nutritional value is limited and includes items such as hard candies and chewing gum. However, those types of items can be sold during lunch time in vending machines located outside the cafeteria doors.3
  • À la carte items that are sold in cafeterias apart from the reimbursable school lunch often are a source of empty calories. In one study published in Pediatrics, nearly 80 percent of middle and high schools had low-nutrient, energy-dense foods available for students through à la carte items.4
  • A survey conducted by the Agriculture Department found less than one-third of public schools offered and served lunches that met the requirements for fat (no more than 30 percent of calories) and saturated fat (less than 10 percent of calories).
  • Almost no schools met the benchmarks for sodium.5
  • Usually there is no one person who makes all of the decisions about what type of food can be bought at school. School food service directors decide on à la carte sales and items served on the lunch line, while principals make decisions about competitive foods sold in vending machines. Parents and teachers decide what kind of food is sold for fundraisers, which often includes candy.6

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack proposed a variety of new measures for the reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program that will improve the quality of school food and impact states:

  • Establish standards for competitive foods in schools.7 Groups such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recommend applying the food standards to all food served on school campuses throughout the day, not just at lunch times.8
  • Provide federal financial assistance so schools can buy better equipment to prepare healthful meals.
  • Train people who prepare school meals. Right now, there are no federal regulations requiring training or certification for school food service workers.
  • Increase the federal reimbursement rate for school meals to enhance the quality of food and promote the consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
  • Increase access to meal programs with tools like direct certification, which automatically enroll children into the free lunch program when families apply for food assistance.7

  Download the Table: "State Nutrition Policies and School Meals Served, 2009"


1 U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The Food Assistant Landscape: FY 2008 Annual Report.”
2 USDA. “The National School Lunch Program: Background, Trends, and Issues.”
3 USDA. “Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value.”
4 “School Food Environments and Policies in U.S. Public Schools.” Daniel M. Finkelstein, et al. Pediatrics 2008; 122; e251–e259.
5 USDA. “School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study—III.”
6 Government Accountability Office. “School Meal Programs: Competitive Foods Are Widely Available and Generate Substantial Revenue for Schools.”
7 USDA. “Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Presents Obama Administration’s Priorities to Improve National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs.”
8 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Improving Child Nutrition Policy: Insights from National USDA Study of School Food Environments.”

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