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Food and Nutrition Programs

National School Lunch Program

What Is the National School Lunch Program?

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program operating in nearly 95,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential childcare institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 26 million children each school day. The National School Lunch Act was signed by President Harry Truman in 1946. Boston was an early adopter of the National School Lunch Program and started serving hot lunches to high school students in 1908!

How Do Local Organizations Participate in the National School Lunch Program?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), through its Food and Nutrition Service, administers the program at the Federal level. At the State level, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) operates the program through agreements with local school districts. School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the lunch program receive cash reimbursement and donated commodity assistance from USDA for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet Federal nutrition requirements, and they must offer free and reduced-price lunches to eligible children. Participating schools can be public, private, charter or residential childcare institutions. DESE performs administrative reviews which comprehensively evaluate participating School Food Authorities (SFA) to ensure they comply with NSLP requirements.

What Are the Nutritional Requirements for the School Lunch?

Meals served as part of the National School Lunch Program must follow high nutritional and food safety standards. In 2010 the Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed, which based the new school meal standards on independent, expert recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. This act was passed to ensure that children are offered healthy food while they are at school. the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act aims to help reduce America's childhood obesity epidemic and reduce health risks for children by helping schools produce balanced meals, so children have access to healthy foods during the school day. All meals served:

  • Ensure students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;
  • Increase offerings of whole grain-rich foods;
  • Offer only fat-free or low-fat milk;
  • Limit calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size;
  • Increase the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats, added sugars, and sodium

USDA has made a commitment to improve the nutritional quality of all school meals. The Department works with state and local school food authorities through the Nutrition Education and Training Program and Team Nutrition initiative to teach and motivate children to make healthy food choices, and to provide school food service staff with training and technical support.

USDA resources:

Massachusetts Specific:

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 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 cents.

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 meals.

What Financial Reimbursement and Resources Do Schools Who Serve Meal in the NSLP Receive?

  • Cash Reimbursement: Most of the support USDA provides to schools in the National School Lunch Program comes in the form of a cash reimbursement for each meal served.
  • USDA Foods Assistance: In addition to cash reimbursements, schools are entitled by law to receive commodity foods, called "entitlement" foods. Schools can also get "bonus" commodities as they are available from surplus stocks.

Eligible schools can streamline and improve school nutrition programs through providing universal breakfast and lunch to all students through the community eligibility provision.

Additional information can be found on:

Last Updated: February 16, 2022

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Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
135 Santilli Highway, Everett, MA 02149

Voice: (781) 338-3000
TTY: (800) 439-2370


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