Free & Reduced Lunch Program 101

WLC Healthy FoodEnsuring that children show up in classrooms each day fed and ready to learn plays an important role in ensuring that all students are afforded a quality education.

One in five American schoolchildren can’t count on getting enough nutritious food at home, which can have a negative impact on a student’s academic performance and development. One way to address this negative impact is through the Free and Reduced Lunch program provided by the USDA.

All public and nonprofit private schools (regardless of tuition) and all residential child care institutions can participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. Students from families with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free or reduced prices in the federal School Lunch Program. Students from families reporting income between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible for reduced priced meals, while children from families with incomes below 130 percent of poverty are eligible for a fully subsidized or “free” meal.

Fast Facts

•  About 21 million students nationwide eat free and reduced-price meals throughout the school year.

• Just over half , or 51%, of all students attending public schools in the United States are now eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, according to a new analysis of federal data. By comparison, 38 percent of public school students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches in 2000.

• To qualify  for a free breakfast & lunch a  family of 4 makes $31,525 or less. A family with 2 children enrolled this program would save $1,054.80 annually through this program (the typical cost of a school lunch is $2.93 x 180 days)

• To qualify for a reduced priced breakfast & lunch a  family of 4 makes $44,863 or less. A family of four with 2 children would save $910.80 annually through this program. (the family pays .40 per lunch instead of $2.93 )

55.6%  of local students received free or reduced-priced lunches last year, up from 38 percent in 2005.

55.6 % translates to about 15,000 students that are on the free and reduced lunch program in Buncombe County. (this number includes Asheville City School students and Buncombe County School students)

• The maximum price to the student’s family is 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch at the reduced lunch rate. The basis of eligibility for free and reduced-price meals can be determined one of four ways: categorical eligibility, direct certification, community eligibility, income-based eligibility (see below for more details)

How Can Students Qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch?

Income Eligibility. When a child is not categorically eligible, the child may qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on household income. The child’s school then compares the household size and total income to the Federal Income Eligibility Guidelines, which determine who is eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals.

Categorical eligibility.  A child is categorically eligible for free school meals who is in foster care, Head Start, homeless, migrant or living in a household receiving SNAP, FDPIR and/or TANF benefits.  These children can all be certified for free meals without a paper application through a data exchange between the corresponding authority and the school district, known as direct certification.

Direct Certification. All school districts nationwide are required to directly certify children living in households that receive SNAP/Food Stamp benefits for free school meals. Children who are categorically eligible and may be directly certified include children in foster care, Head Start, homeless, migrant or living in households receiving SNAP/Food Stamp, FDPIR or TANF benefits.

Community eligibility. This is the newest option for allowing schools with  high percentages of low-income children to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students without collecting school meal applications. Schools can use this option if they have 40 percent or more students directly certified for free meals. Beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, all schools nationwide that meet the 40 percent direct certification threshold will be eligible to participate in this option.  Currently there are 3 schools in Buncombe County that meet these qualifications and are providing free breakfast and lunches to all of their students: Emma Elementary, Johnston Elementary and Woodfin Elementary. 


President Harry Truman signed into law the National School Lunch Act in 1946, in part as a way to provide meals to low-income students.

In 1966, as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” the federal government began funneling extra money into school districts with high concentrations of poverty, as a way to blunt its effects.

Along the way, the federal government began using this nutrition program as a stand-in for gauging how many poor or low-income students a school has. Researchers and state education departments soon began using this “F&R” data, too.

The U.S. Census Bureau measures actual poverty, but it’s difficult for researchers to use that data because census tracts don’t align with school-district boundaries or attendance zones for individual schools.

What Happens in Summer?

In order to address the increased risk of child hunger in the summer months for those children who received a free or reduced lunch, the USDA created the Summer Meals Program. The Summer Meals program is a federally-funded, state-administered program which reimburses providers who serve healthy meals to children and teens in low-income areas at no charge primarily during the summer months when school is not in session. During the school year, many children receive free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch through the School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs. When school lets out many of these children are at risk of hunger, and the Summer Food Program originated to help alleviate this risk.

“This program helps a lot,” says a mother of 3 who participates in this program each summer. “When the kids are in school, they get their lunches provided for them. In the summer, my food bill goes up substantially, but I don’t get an increase in the amount of food stamps. It makes it tough. Having this program saves me probably $100 a month in my food budget.” Read her full story here.

In its 4th year, the Summer Meals Program has been growing steadily. Starting June 16 through August 7, feeding sites will be providing breakfast and/or lunch to any child ages 2-18 regardless of income. There is no application process or screening. The only requirement is that the child remain in the area while eating the meal.

Last year, the it served over 86,000 meals, up from 70,000 the previous year and 50,000 the first year. The feeding sites are in two categories, “open sites”, which are available to any child in Buncombe County and “program sites”, which are program specific and only available to children enrolled in that program. All sites are located throughout Buncombe County.


This story is part of a series collected by The Success Equation. Under the umbrella of Children First/CIS, the Success Equation is an initiative that unites community to reduce and prevent the root causes of poverty so all children can thrive. Get involved! Learn about action steps, volunteer opportunities, and help share these messages by going to To find more, go to