The Pros & Cons of the US National School Lunch Program

national-school-lunch-programDid you know...

  • Every year, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) serves billions of lunches to kids across the country.
  • Approximately 95% of public schools receive national school lunch program funding (FRAC).
  • 30.5 million students receive free or reduced meals thanks to national school lunch program funding.
  • In just 2015 alone, the cost of the National School Lunch Program was 11.7 billion.

Schools play a big part in feeding children. For many students who come from low-income families, the meals they receive at school may be the only balanced meals they’ll receive all day. 

But not every family can afford to participate in school meal programs, as schools lack the funding to cover the meals. That's where the national school lunch program comes in. By offering free or reduced meals that are federally subsidized, the U.S. National school lunch program ensures students are able to receive the nutrition needed to learn. 

Ove the span of 75 years, the National School Lunch Program has helped a lot of children, yet the NSLP still has its detractors. Aside from those concerned about the public cost of the program, parents and educators have strongly criticized the NSLP for a variety of reasons. This article will give you a detailed explanation of the pros and cons of the National School Lunch Program.

What is the National School Lunch Program?

The NSLP is a federally funded meal program for schools, nonprofit private schools and child care centers.

Before the establishment of this program, local authorities and charities led the charge to feed needy school children. However,  the onset of the Great Depression, and the growing number of impoverished Americans, required a federal response.

The original program grew from the federal Commodity Donation Program, which was created during the Great Depression for two purposes. The first purpose was to stabilize the agriculture market which produced excess crops and saw prices fall. The second purpose was to help feed the growing number of impoverished.

Over a decade later in 1946, the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act was signed into law by President Truman. It sought to continue the tradition of stabilizing the agriculture market while supporting children who could not afford to pay for school meals. 


The primary goal of the program continues to be providing nutritionally balanced lunches to kids, either for free or at a reduced cost. The program is designed to be a safeguard for the health and wellbeing of children.

Over seven million kids participated in the NSLP during its first year. And 70 years after the program was first established, more than 30 million kids received lunches thanks to the NSLP.

The administration of the NSLP is overseen by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Beneath the federal organizations, several state agencies manage the operations in conjunction with school food authorities.

In order to participate, school lunches must meet certain federal nutrition guidelines. This means schools must follow a precise set of menu guidelines for their meals. The individual nutritional guidelines are many, but require schools to focus on increasing the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals. Another area of focus is to reduce the amount of sodium and saturated fat within meals. Last of all, there are calorie requirements to consider.

The National School Lunch Program outlines all things including smoothies, grain requirements, salad bars and sodium requirements on their nutritional standards for meals section of their website.

Schools who are able to follow the set of meal requirements set by the National School Lunch Program are reimbursed for their costs based on the number of meals served.

Free School Lunch Program Survey Templates

The Benefits of the National School Lunch Program

For kids who don’t get enough to eat at home, the NSLP is a lifesaver. During the school year, they can always count on school lunches being free or heavily discounted.

As the country has grown for decades, the number of children within families needing financial support for food has grown as well. It's no wonder that, by its twenty-fifth anniversary, the program grew to feeding three times as many students each year from its original figure of 7.1 million.

And because of the nutritionally balanced meal requirements, many of the children receiving lunches from the National School Lunch Program enjoy their healthiest meals at school. This works to combat malnourishment and promote public health.

The are plenty of benefits to the National School Lunch Program. Here are just a few the NSLP has to offer.

Helps kids get a better education

It’s hard for hungry children to receive a quality education and concentrate in school. Nutrition is foundational to their ability to learn, and school lunches can help fill in the gaps of what many children are missing at home.

Fights childhood hunger

There is still a lot of inequality in the U.S., and many kids are paying the price. Providing free and reduced-cost school lunches can help decrease childhood hunger.
This was especially important during the nationwide shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. The USDA was able to extend the program and allow anyone under the age of 18 to continue receiving meals through the summer. The program was expanded to include meal pickup sites and home delivery options at no additional cost to the parents. This ensured that kids could continue to receive the meals they rely on for their nutritional needs.

Increase overall well-being

One of the greatest features of the National School Lunch Program is its nutritional standards. The standards are based on the latest nutritional science, which is important for growing kids.

When children have their basic nutritional needs met, this increases their overall health and well-being. They are less likely to get sick and miss school days and will be better able to pay attention at school.


Convenient for parents

School lunches are also more convenient for working parents and give them more options. Not having to worry about making their child’s lunch every day may seem minor, but it’s one thing parents can check off their to-do list.

Improvements to the program

The NSLP is constantly changing as federal leaders look for ways to improve the program. For instance, the USDA updated the program guidelines to recommend that schools serve more fruits and vegetables and offer whole grains whenever possible. 

Helps those in need

For families living between 130 to 185 percent beneath the federal poverty line, the program is a life saver (FRAC). To put the percentages into context, a family of three making 130 to 185 percent over the federal poverty line would earn only $26,208 to $37,296 per year.  The National School Lunch Program ensures that they will have to pay no more than 40 percent per lunch.

Aside from a moral responsibility to care for children in need, the program is essential to the health of the country. Without the program, tens of millions of American school children would go hungry each day, depriving them of the nourishment they need to grow into adulthood and support our society for generations to come. 

Problems With the National School Lunch Program

While it’s easy to see the benefits that the NSLP provides, the program has also been subject to controversy and criticism over the years. The program has also struggled to keep up with the increasing demand.

And many people argue that the ingredients in the meals are not very nutritionally balanced and contribute to obesity in kids. Here are some of the biggest disadvantages of the program.

Food quality

One of the biggest criticisms of the NSLP is the quality of the food. Healthier food costs more money to make, so many schools just don’t have the funding to improve lunches and meals.

Physically unhealthy children

There’s no doubt that any food is better than no food. But studies have shown that students who regularly eat hot lunches are more likely to be overweight and obese as opposed to kids who bring their lunches. And poor nutrition can cause cognitive delays in children.

Cost to taxpayers

The cost of free school lunches can be very expensive since all of the food must be paid for by the taxpayers. And the taxpayers have to pay to administer the program.

Can cause a stigma

For children who receive free or reduced-cost lunches, it’s important that this is done in a way that doesn’t differentiate them from other kids. Otherwise, this can cause a stigma where those children stand out from their peers and even be subject to bullying.

Potential waste:

Because the quality of the ingredients isn’t great and many kids don’t like hot lunch, there’s an inevitable waste with the program. Some kids end up throwing away their food, and many school lunches will ultimately go to waste.

In spite of the USDA updating the NSLP’s guidelines, many health experts say they don’t go far enough. The updated guidelines still include things like French fries and pizza, and don’t put any restrictions on how many servings students can take.

Bottom Line

The primary purpose of the NSLP is to ensure that all kids have access to nutritionally balanced meals while they’re at school. Having access to school lunches can help kids perform better in school and fight childhood hunger.

However, there are things that could be improved about the NSLP. A lot of food ends up going to waste, and the quality of the ingredients isn’t as high as it could be. Plus, we have a long way to go when it comes to teaching kids to choose healthy food.

But overall, making sure underprivileged children get the food they need should be a top priority for all Americans. The NSLP can help make this a reality, so the benefits of the program outweigh any cons.

If you're interested on how you can streamline your school meal program to fit the NSLP, there is a software that can help. Vanco's POS Software simplifies the process for families to maximize reimbursements, E-rate and Title 1 funding.Learn More


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