Lunch Box Lessons: Free and Reduced School Meal Program

September 11, 2023

The opinions expressed in this guest column are the views of the author. 


Mornings can be stressful! Getting your children fed, lunches packed, and everyone on the bus in time can be a challenge. The recent increases in food costs only add to this stress as families stretch their dollars trying to provide healthy food for their families.


MFAN’s recent research has found that 1 in 6 military and veteran families experience food insecurity. The Free and Reduced School Meal Program is an incredible resource helping millions of families provide their children with healthy meals at no, or limited, cost. 


What is the free and reduced School Meal Program?

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides nutritionally balanced, low or no-cost lunches to children in public schools (as well as nonprofit private schools and residential childcare institutions).


Established under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act and signed into law in 1946, the NSLP provides a healthy lunch every school day. The School Breakfast Program was added by Congress in 1975 and now provides school breakfast including “Grab and Go” and “Breakfast in the Classroom” options at many schools.


School meals are critical to student health and well-being, reduce food insecurity, and lower obesity rates and poor health.


But aren’t home-prepared meals healthier?

Not all home-prepared meals are healthier than school meals. School lunches include fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Few packed lunches and snacks brought from home meet National School Lunch Program standards. Studies conducted after the implementation of the new school meal nutrition standards have found that packed lunches brought from home by pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students have more calories, fat, saturated fat, and sugar than school lunches, as well as less protein, fiber, vitamin A, and calcium. Children participating in school meals are less likely to have nutrient inadequacies and are more likely to consume fruit, vegetables, and milk at breakfast and lunch.


Healthy meals lead to school success

When you are hungry it is hard to concentrate — you may feel irritable, tired, and less engaged. Students who are hungry have more behavioral, emotional, and academic problems at school, leading to lower test scores and grades. Teens experiencing hunger are more likely to have been suspended from school and have difficulty getting along with other children. In short, healthy meals help students focus on learning!


Will we qualify for Free or Reduced Meals?

Your child is eligible for the FREE MEAL program if you meet one or more of the following criteria:


  • Your annual income is $39,000 or less with a household of four.
  • Your household receives benefits like EBT and cash assistance.
  • Your child is in foster care, is a child of migrant workers, or is experiencing homelessness.
  • Your child participates in the Head Start program.

Your child is eligible for REDUCED PRICE MEALS if:


  • Your annual income is $55,550 or less with a household of four. Income limits are for the 48 contiguous states, Washington, D.C., Guam, and the territories. Income limits are higher in Alaska and Hawaii.

Learn how to apply for free and reduced price school meals here. To discover more about the income eligibility guidelines, click here


Community Eligibility

Some schools provide free meals to all students at their school under the “Community Eligibility” plan authorized by Congress as a part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This plan allows schools and local educational agencies (LEAs) located in low-income areas to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students, eliminating the burden of collecting household applications to determine eligibility for school meal programs benefits. Check your local area to see if this applies to your school.


five reasons the school meal program can help your family:

  1. School meals reduce stress by eliminating shopping, planning, and meal preparation. No more forgotten lunches on the kitchen counter!
  2. School meals help ensure healthy eating by providing fruits and vegetables with every meal, including whole grains and limiting salt and fat, which are often high in convenience foods parents pack for lunch.
  3. School meals provide items that are difficult to pack, like milk, frozen fruit, and dairy treats (no one likes warm milk for lunch)! Kids who eat school lunch consume more dairy than those who pack their lunch.
  4. School meals help curb picky eaters. Typically, kids need to be exposed to new foods 8-15 times before they are comfortable with the food. As parents, we often give up before then because we don’t like throwing away food we have paid for and spent time prepping, or we want to avoid the struggle of getting our kids to try foods. At schools, kids are more likely to try foods because others are eating those foods and enjoying them.
  5. No more lost lunch boxes!

About the Author

Amy Lazev

Dr. Amy Lazev is the Supervisor of the School Health Initiative Program, a grant-funded, division-wide healt…
Read More