This page is a snapshot of school meals in America.

  • 54 million American kids are enrolled in kindergarten through high school(1), and 29.5 million of these kids participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) (2).

  • School food programs also offer breakfast. In FY2005, 9.3 million children participated in school breakfast programs serving 1.6 billion breakfasts – 82% of which were free or reduced price. (2)

  • During the summer, 1.9 million children participate in the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, consuming 117 million meals. (2)

  • Almost half of children (over 14 million) participating in the NSLP get their lunches for free, while 3 million qualify for reduced-price lunch. The others pay full price.(2)

  • Even full price lunches are subsidized 22¢ by the U.S. government, which also reimburses schools $2.32 for each free lunch and $1.92 for each reduced-price lunch. In lower-income school districts where at least 60% of children receive free or reduced-price lunches, an extra 2¢ is added to each of these amounts. Schools are reimbursed $1.27-$1.51 for each free breakfast. (3)

  • In addition to cash subsidies, schools can also receive about 17¢ worth of free surplus commodities per meal served. Schools select these commodities from a list provided by USDA. But “because the Department [of Agriculture] is charged with stabilizing agriculture markets, children’s preferences, food quality and nutrition must frequently compete with economic factors when the Department decides which commodities to purchase and supply.” (4) About 17% of the total dollar value of food served in school lunch programs comes from surplus commodities.

  • Fewer kids are bringing bag lunches from home. The typical 6-12 year old brings 41 lunches from home each year, down from 69 a decade ago. (5)

  • Though school lunches are often criticized as unhealthy, an Eastern Michigan University study directed by Alice Jo Rainville, PhD, found that school-lunch participants eat 21% fewer calories from fat, seven times as many vegetables, and twice as much fruit as brown-baggers. The brown-bag crowd also ate three times as many snack foods (chips, cookies, and packaged snacks) as school lunch participants. (6)

  • According to the School Nutrition Association in Alexandria, VA, in just two years, nationwide the average lunch period in elementary schools has shrunk from about 30 minutes to 23.7 minutes. The association recommends 26 minutes for lunch and an additional four minutes to get to the cafeteria.(6)

While schools can play an important role in bringing more whole grains to children, it’s important to put the school lunch program in context. These numbers show that school breakfasts and lunches affect only about 11% of the meals our kids eat.

54,000,000 total students, Kindergarten through 12th grade (1)
162,000,000 total potential meals per day, at 3 per day
59,130,000,000 total potential meals per year, over 365 days
4,952,000,000 total school lunches served, in FY20052
1,596,000,000 total school breakfasts served, in FY20052
52,582,000,000 total meals school kids eat OUTSIDE of NSL/SB programs
11% percent of meals kids eat in school meal programs
89% percent of meals kids eat beyond reach of school meal programs

1. U.S. Census Bureau, June 1, 2005. 4 million of these are in kindergarten, 33 million in elementary school, and 17 million in secondary school.

2. USDA Food Nutrition Service, at

3. Federal Register/Vol 70, No. 136/ Monday July 18, 2005/Notices. Reimbursement rates are for the 48 contiguous states; Hawaii and Alaska rates are higher.

4. John Boehner (R-OH), Chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce. Oct 7, 2003 press release.

5. NPD Group, as quoted in Newsweek, Nov 2, 2005.

6. Rainville, A.J. (2003). School lunch or sack lunch? American School Board Journal, January, 27-29.

7., August 6, 2005