School Meal Programs - Action for Healthy Kids
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School Meal Programs

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What are federal school meal programs? 

Federal school meal programs are food and nutrition assistance programs that are run by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These programs provide nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free meals to children in school each day. Meal programs include the National School Lunch Program, National School Breakfast Program, Special Milk Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Food Service Program. The federal school meal program was established in the 1940s and serves millions of children every day.1  

I’ve heard about a Community Eligibility Provision. What does this mean? 

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows schools and districts that are classified as “high-poverty” to provide breakfast and lunch for free to all students, regardless of each students’ household income level.2 This reduces administrative paperwork and costs for operating these meal programs, maximizes federal reimbursements and increases school meal participation.  

Who do meal programs impact? 

Approximately 100,000 schools participate in federal school meal programs. Participation varies based on the specific school meal program, with approximately 15 million students participating in school breakfast and 30 million students participating in school lunch.1 

Why are school meal programs important? 

School meal programs have several well-documented benefits, including alleviating food insecurity and poverty, providing good nutrition, improving health outcomes, and enhancing learning. For example, school lunch has been shown to reduce risk of food insufficiency by 14% and children that participate consume more fruits, vegetables, and milk at breakfast and lunch.3 

Implementation Best Practices

  • Take advantage of school meal program opportunities: In which meal programs does your school or district currently participate? Are there opportunities to add new program offerings Take advantage school breakfast, after-school meals and snacks, and the Community Eligibility Provision to maximize revenue and ensure students are healthy and ready to learn. 
  • Maximize participation in school meal programs: Review Average Daily Participation (ADP) rates of each of your school meal programs. Can you increase participation rates? Use best practice strategies such as alternative school breakfast models, taste tests, seeking and incorporating student feedback from surveys or focus groups, improving marketing of meal offerings and engaging parents/caregivers.  
  • Use experiential learning strategies to help students experience healthy food. Experiential learning initiatives are designed to promote “learning through reflection on doing” and to create opportunities for students to apply skills and knowledge learned within the context of their community, cultural background and own lived experiences. Taste tests, school gardens and healthy cooking classes provide hands-on opportunities for students to discover new foods and learn about healthy eating.  
  • Strengthen family-school partnerships: The more families know about school meal offerings, the better they are positioned to support participation in those programs. Do this by providing clear, consistent communication, creating a welcoming space, inviting them to eat meals at school, inviting their input, just to name a few. 

Ideas for Getting Started

Check out some of Action for Healthy Kids’ resources to help you get started!   


  • Move breakfast out of the cafeteria using an alternative school breakfast model (Breakfast in the Classroom, Second Chance Breakfast or Grab and Go Breakfast), which has been shown to increase participation in school breakfast. 
  • Make sure students get at least 20 minutes for lunch. But that means 20 minutes to actually sit down and eat (excluding time waiting in line or walking from class to cafeteria). 
  • Schools are often the largest restaurant in town – Make it feel like a restaurant experience! Spruce up your cafeteria with artwork, signage and posters to create a warm atmosphere.  
  • Is meal participation stagnant? Try innovative methods such as salad bars, micro markets, bulk milk dispensing and smoothies to appeal to students. Our partners at Hubert can help. 
  • Get students involved. Seek and incorporate their feedback into menus to create excitement about and buy-in for school meals. 
  • Take advantage of national observances such as National School Breakfast Week (March) and National School Lunch Week (October) to create buzz about school meals.  

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