School Meal Trends & Stats

School Meals During the Pandemic

Beginning in March 2020, federal pandemic  regulatory waivers  allowed schools to offer free meals to all children without an application. Waivers also eased administrative rules and provided schools higher per-meal reimbursements to help cover pandemic costs. SNA advocated to extend waivers through SY 2022/23 to address ongoing supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and rising costs. The Keep Kids Fed Act, signed June 25, 2022, provides additional funds for school meal programs and extends select regulatory waivers, but prevents schools from offering free meals to all students for SY 2022/23. Families eligible for free or reduced price school meals now must apply for meal benefits; all other families must pay for school meals. 

When COVID-19 closed schools, school nutrition professionals  quickly adapted operations to ensure hungry students continued to have access to healthy school meals. Waivers allowed schools to distribute grab-and-go meals at drive through pick-up sites, deliver directly to student homes or along bus routes. Parents could pick up multiple days worth of grab-and-go meals at a time for remote learners without the child present.  

As students  returned to school, waiver extensions allowed school nutrition professionals to continue to safely serve students whether they were learning in person or remotely. Offering free meals to all students sped up meal distribution and improved safety by eliminating requirements for staff to collect payment or verify student eligibility for free meals.  

Supply Chain & Financial Challenges

School meal programs from every geographic region and district size are reporting a wide variety of supply chain disruptions. SNA’s 2021 Supply Chain Survey found over 98% of programs report shortages of menu items, supplies and packaging, as well as menu items being discontinued by their manufacturers. Schools continue to serve students healthy meals, but these disruptions leave school nutrition professionals scrambling to place additional orders for substitute menu items, find new vendors when orders are shorted, cancelled or delayed, and even make trips to local stores to purchase necessary food and supplies. Schools must make last-minute changes to the menu based on availability and reduce the number of choices in the cafeteria. The additional work is taking a toll on school nutrition staff, and nearly all respondents (95%) indicated staff shortages are a challenge.

Severe supply chain and staffing challenges add to financial difficulties for school meal programs. Virtually all respondents (97%) reported higher costs, compared to contracted bids, with nearly three quarters citing it as a “significant challenge.” School meal programs have always operated on extremely tight budgets, and pandemic school closures and financial losses left many programs on shaky ground. USDA data shows that in the first full year of the pandemic (Mar. 2020 – Feb. 2021), schools served 2.2 billion fewer meals compared to the prior year, equating to a $2.3 billion loss in federal revenue. SNA surveys indicate 54% of school meal programs reported a financial loss in SY 2019/20, and 38% incurred a net loss for SY 2020/21 (an additional 12% were unsure of losses).

Given the extent of these disruptions and ongoing financial challenges for school meal programs. SNA’s 2022 Position Paper called on Congress to extend federal school nutrition waivers through SY 2022/23. Congress passed The Keep Kids Fed Act in June 2022, which help address rising costs by providing schools an additional 40 cents for every school lunch and an additional 15 cents for every school breakfast. SNA will continue to monitor supply chain costs and advocate for necessary support for school meal programs.  

Benefits of School Meals

Balanced nutrition throughout the day contributes to student success in and out of the classroom. New research shows children are getting their healthiest meals at school. Studies have demonstrated that school meal programs play an important role in supporting obesity prevention, overall student health and academic achievement by improving children’s diets and combatting hunger. Click on the links to read more about the proven benefits of the School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program. Also, hear from Pediatrician Robert Murray (MD, FAAP) about the importance of nutrients to brain and child development, and how healthy school meals build healthier students.

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Participation, Meals Served and Program Cost

National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Average Daily Participation:
Pre-pandemic, nearly 100,000 schools/institutions serve school lunches to 29.6 million students each day, including:

  • 20.1 million free lunches
  • 1.7 million reduced price (student pays $0.40)
  • 7.7 million full price
  • 4.9 billion lunches are served annually

(Source: USDA FY 2019 data)

NSLP Annual Cost:
14.20 billion in federal dollars, including:

  • 12.87 billion in reimbursements
  • 1.33 billion in commodity costs

(Source: USDA FY 2019 data

School Breakfast Program (SBP) Average Daily Participation:
Pre-pandemic, over 90,000 schools/institutions serve school breakfasts to 14.77 million students each day, including:

  • 11.80 million free breakfasts
  • 0.74 million reduced price (student pays $0.30)
  • 2.23 million full price
  • 2.45 billion breakfasts are served annually

(Source: USDA FY 2019 data)

SBP Annual Cost:

  • 4.6 billion in federal reimbursements
  • No commodity entitlement

(Source: USDA FY 2019 data )

Reimbursement Rates

Federal Reimbursement Rates for SY 2022/23:
School meal programs are reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each meal they serve. Federal waivers that allowed schools to receive the higher Summer Food Service Program reimbursement rate for meals served during the pandemic have expired. For SY 2022/23, school meal programs will return to being reimbursed at the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) rates; however, due to continued financial challenges, the Keep Kids Fed Act temporarily provided an additional 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast. Below are the total reimbursement rates for meals served in the contiguous states to students eligible for free meals, reduced price meals, and for students who pay for their meals. Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands receive higher rates. Get further details on reimbursement rates.

NSLP Reimbursement Rates for SY 2022/23:

  • Free: $4.33
  • Reduced Price: $3.93
  • Paid: $0.77
  • Schools certified as meeting the new nutrition standards receive an additional $.08 per lunch.
  • An additional $.02 per lunch is provided to schools in which 60 percent or more of the second preceding school year lunches were served free or reduced price.

SBP Reimbursement Rates for SY 2021/22:

  • Free: $1.97
  • Reduced Price: $1.67
  • Paid: $0.33
  • An additional $0.41 is provided for each free or reduced price breakfast served in “severe need” schools, where at least 40 percent of the lunches served during the second preceding school year were served free or reduced price.

Eligibility for Free and Reduced Price Meals

Federal pandemic waivers allowing all students to receive free school meals have expired. For SY 2022-23, eligible families must apply to receive free or reduced price meals. Children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free school meals. Those with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals (student pays 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch). In SY 2022-23, a family of four earning $36,075 or less is eligible for free meals and one earning $51,338 or less is eligible for reduced price meals. 

Children from families with incomes over 185% of poverty pay full price for their meals. Local school districts set their own prices for paid meals.  Get further details on income eligibility, including rates for Alaska and Hawaii.

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School Meal Prices and Unpaid Meals

School meal prices vary widely across the country. Prices are set by local school districts, usually with school board oversight. The following table lists average prices for paid meals during the 2016-17 school year. The data was collected in SNA’s State of School Nutrition 2018 survey, which included responses from 1,550 SNA member school districts nationwide. Rising food and labor costs have forced many school districts to consider increasing prices for SY 2022/23. 

  Lunch   Breakfast  
Elementary   $2.48 $1.46
Middle   $2.68 $1.53
High   $2.74 $1.55

Unpaid meals and charge policies:

No one wants a child to go hungry or feel shame – especially those working in school cafeterias. School nutrition professionals work throughout the year to enroll struggling families in the free and reduced price meal program and to make the cafeteria a welcoming, safe space for students.

School meals are as critical to learning as textbooks and teachers. To ensure every student is nourished and ready to learn, SNA advocates for providing all students school meals at no charge. Unfortunately, federal school meal funds only cover the full cost of meals served to students eligible for free meals. Schools must charge all other students to cover food, labor and other costs.

In 2017, USDA regulations mandated that schools implement unpaid meal policies clarifying what happens when a student cannot pay for a meal. Schools have latitude on what types of policies they develop. Policies may limit the number of times students can charge a meal or offer students a free, lower-cost alternate meal, such as a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk. USDA requires schools to attempt to collect any debt incurred from meal charges and prohibits them from using federal funds to pay off unpaid meal debt. When families can’t or don’t pay for meals served, unpaid meal debt can rapidly accumulate, forcing schools to use education funds to cover losses.

SNA’s 2019 School Nutrition Trends Report revealed 75% of districts had unpaid meal debt and the amount of debt has grown substantially in recent years. Debt is increasing despite widespread efforts to support families and prevent or minimize student meal charges. SNA’s 2018 School Nutrition Operations Report found schools employ tactics such as: providing assistance to families completing free and reduced price meal applications; offering financial support through charitable donations; providing online payment and monitoring of account balances; and sending low balance notifications through automated phone calls, texts and emails. Other strategies to curb unpaid meal charges include:

Eliminating the reduced price copay:

Some low income families, particularly those with multiple school aged children, struggle to afford the daily reduced price copay for school breakfast (30 cents) and lunch (40 cents). Some school districts and states have elected to cover the cost of the reduced price copay to ensure these students receive healthy school meals at no charge. This tactic can reduce unpaid meal charges and increase school meal participation among students from low income families.

Community Eligibility Provision (CEP):

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a federal program that allows the nation’s highest poverty schools or districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications.

Research shows school meals contribute to the health, attentiveness, behavior and academic success of students. Allowing all students to receive free meals ensures students have equal access to the benefits nutritious school meals while reducing program administrative costs.

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Cost to Produce School Meals

In light of rising food costs and the increased cost of producing school meals to meet updated nutrition standards, school nutrition professionals face a delicate balancing act to keep their programs in the black. SNA is calling on Congress to provide increased funding and regulatory flexibility to help school meal programs manage higher costs.

In April 2019, USDA released the  School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, which examined the cost of producing school meals during school year 2014-15.The study found that the average school meal program operates at a small deficit, and the reported cost of producing school meals typically exceeds federal reimbursements for those meals.

Costs differ from one community to the next due to regional variations in food, labor and fuel costs, and local variations in school equipment and infrastructure, contract agreements, etc. However, for the typical school meal program, the average reported cost to produce a school lunch was $3.81, compared to the average federal free lunch subsidy of $3.32. The average cost to produce a breakfast was $2.72, well above the federal subsidy of $1.88.

To boost operational revenue, many school meal programs rely on a la carte sales, provide catering services or contract with community programs such as Head Start and child care or elder care centers to supply meals.

Breakdown in costs:

The School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study revealed the following average breakdown in costs for producing a school lunch:

Food 44.7%
Labor/Benefits 44.5%
Other direct costs (supplies, contracted services, equipment, utilities, etc.)
Indirect Costs*
Total   100%  

*Indirect costs are paid to the school district for the use of facilities, administrative support or other services.

Typical expenses:

The average school nutrition program has a number of expenses beyond food, labor, benefits and supplies that factor into the budget. These include:

  • Purchased and leased equipment (kitchen, office, dining, vehicles)
  • Repair / maintenance
  • Purchased services (contracts with vendors for data processing, consultant fees, custodial, printing, advertising, legal, human resources, etc.)
  • Technology (point of sale systems, nutrient analysis and menu planning software, inventory tracking and online payment systems)
  • Electricity / water / trash removal
  • Transportation / fuel
  • Professional development
  • Marketing / promotion
  • Security services and lunch room supervision

Lunch Period Scheduling

Federal regulations state that “schools must offer lunches between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm. Schools may request an exemption from these times from the state agency.” These regulations also encourage schools “to provide sufficient lunch periods that are long enough to give all students adequate time to be served and to eat their lunches.”

SNA’s State of School Nutrition 2018 survey, which included responses from 1,550 SNA member school districts nationwide, revealed that the typical lunch period length is about half an hour, with a median of 25 minutes reported for elementary schools and 30 minutes for middle and high schools. However, this data does not specify the amount of time students have to eat their meals, as lunch periods must also include travel time from the classroom to the cafeteria and time in line to select a meal.

Lunch schedules and short lunch periods continue to challenge school nutrition professionals, as they work to serve hundreds of students in a matter of minutes and ensure students have adequate time to enjoy their meals. Under updated nutrition standards for school meals, cafeterias are offering more fresh produce, which takes more time for students to consume.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 research brief, Making Time for School Lunch, recommends that students have “at least 20 minutes once they are seated (seat time).” SNA has called on the US Departments of Agriculture and Education to work with school meal programs in developing best practices and guidance to ensure students have adequate time to eat healthy school meals. 

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