Many schools provide students with access to meals through federal school meal programs including the National School Lunch Programexternal icon and the School Breakfast Programexternal icon. These programs are administered by the US Department of Agricultureexternal icon and state agencies by reimbursing schools for providing healthy meals to students.
All students can participate in school meal programs, and some students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals. For the 2020-2021 school year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended flexibilitiesexternal icon to allow free meals to be available to all children, regardless of household income.
- Programs like the National School Lunch Program’s Afterschool Snack Service, the At-Risk Snack and Meals component of the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) offer financial support to provide children and youths with nutritious snacks and meals. CACFP and SFSP specifically reach children from low-income areas.
- School food service departments have experience following food safety and nutrition guidelines. This makes them strong candidates for serving as a Child and Adult Care Food Program or Summer Food Service Program sponsor.
Research shows that students who participate in the school meal programs consume more whole grains, milk, fruits, and vegetables during meal times and have better overall diet quality, than nonparticipants.1,2 And, eating breakfast at school is associated with better attendance rates, fewer missed school days, and better test scores.3–6 Meals served through these programs must meet specific nutrition requirementsexternal icon. These requirements were revised in 2012 to include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and decrease the amount of sodium and trans fat. Research shows that these changes have helped make school meals more nutritious.1,7
Schools can encourage students to participate in the school meal programs by:
- Providing meals that are nutritious and appealing.
- Obtaining input from students and parents about items they would like to see served in the meals.
- Ensuring that students have adequate time to eat their meal (at least 10 minutes for breakfast and 20 minutes for lunch).
- Preventing the overt identification of students who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals.
- Institute of Child Nutrition tools and trainingsexternal icon
- Alliance for a Healthier Generation resources for school mealsexternal icon
- FoodCorpsexternal icon
- CDC School Health Guidelines to Promote Healthy Eating and Physical Activity
- USDA HHFKA Implementation Research Brief Seriesexternal icon
- At-Risk Afterschool Meals Component of CACFPexternal icon
- National School Lunch Program Afterschool Snack Serviceexternal icon
- Summer Food Service Programexternal icon
- No Kid Hungry Best Practice Centerexternal icon
- FRAC Resource Libraryexternal icon
- Fox MK, Gearan E, Cabili C, et al. School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, Final Report Volume 4: Student Participation, Satisfaction, Plate Waste, and Dietary Intakes. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Policy Support; 2019. https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/resource-files/SNMCS-Volume4.pdfpdf iconexternal icon
- Kinderknecht K, Harris C, Jones-Smith J. Association of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act with Dietary Quality Among Children in the US National School Lunch Program. JAMA. 2020;324(4):359-368.
- Murphy JM, Pagano MR, Nachmani J, Sperling P, Kane S, Kleinman RR. The relationship of school breakfast to psychosocial and academic functioning. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 1998;152:899–107.
- Murphy JM, Pagano M, Bishop SJ. Impact of a universally-free, in-classroom school breakfast program on achievement: Result from the Abell Foundation’s Baltimore Breakfast Challenge Program. Boston, MA: Massachusetts General Hospital; 2001.
- Murphy JM, Drake JE, Weineke KM. Academics and Breakfast Connection Pilot: Final report on New York’s classroom breakfast project. Albany, NY: Nutrition Consortium of New York; 2005.
- Myers A, Sampson A, Weitzman M, Rogers B, Kayne H. School Breakfast Program and School Performance. Am J Dis Child, 1989;143:1234–9.
- Gearan EC, Fox MK. Updated nutrition standards have significantly improved the nutritional quality of school lunches and breakfasts. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2020;120(3):363-370.