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school lunch program

Alternative Names 
National School Lunch Program (NSLP)

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) program has been around for more than 50 years. President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law in 1946. The NSLP safeguards the health and well being of the nation's children. It encourages children to eat healthy, nutritious foods at school. The NSLP has the potential to teach children how to establish lifetime healthy eating habits by feeding them nutritious meals at school.

What food source is the nutrient found in? 

How does the nutrient affect the body? 

The NSLP is a federally assisted meal program. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state education agencies work together to bring the program to local schools. The program is open to both public and non-profit private schools and to residential child-care institutions. About ninety-nine percent (99%) of all public schools currently participate in the program nationwide. The schools receive cash aid and donated goods from the USDA for each meal served. In return, schools serve meals that meet federal nutrition requirements. These meals must also be available for free or for a reduced-price for children who meet certain income levels. Children have the option of using the Lunch Program or bringing their lunch from home.

NSLP nutrition requirements are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These Guidelines recommend no more than 30 percent (30%) of calories from fat and less than 10 percent (10%) of calories from saturated fat. Other requirements include providing one third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for calories, protein, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium.

Schools do not have to meet these standards each day. Menus averaged over a week must meet the nutrition goals. Therefore, school lunches must include milk, and many schools now offer fat-free, reduced-fat, and/or chocolate or white milk. Lunches must also include a source of protein from lean meat, poultry, fish, cheese, eggs, beans or peanut butter, as well as a greater variety of vegetables, fruits, breads or other grain foods. Many parents rely on school lunches to provide healthy meals to their children. In most cases, schools offer healthy foods. Unfortunately, many schools must compete with fast-food restaurants, vending machines and convenience foods, which are often located within the school or close by. As a result, many school lunch programs now offer similar types of foods to attract students and to prevent plate waste. This has upset some parents and created some controversy.

More than 26 million children get their lunch from the NSLP every school day. Many schools also offer the School Breakfast Program, which serves approximately 7 million children each school day. Without these meal programs many children would go hungry and/or under nourished. Research has shown that students who participate in the school meal programs get more calories and nutrients than students who do not. Students who eat breakfast perform better in school and have longer attention spans.

School lunch programs vary depending on the school district. More information is available from each school. The school will work with parents to decide if a child is eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Most schools provide weekly or monthly menus. This gives parents a chance to see what their child is eating for lunch. If a parent objects to what is being served, a brown-bag lunch can be sent instead.

Author: Clare Armstrong, MS, RD
Reviewer: Kimberly A. Tessmer, RD, LD
Last Updated: 05/16/00
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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