School Food Fact Sheet


This fact sheet is intended to provide the press with noteworthy facts and resources that could be used when writing about school food.

Understanding School Food Infographic

Understanding school food in America can be dizzying. In this infographic, we break down the following topics in a way that is easy to digest:

  • The National School Lunch Program (NSLP)
  • Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010
  • School meal participation and cost
  • Federal reimbursement rates
  • How schools spend NSLP money
  • New USDA guidelines for school lunch
  • The five meal components
  • Benefits of scratch-cooking in schools
  • Farm to School

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Children & Schools

  • Total number of U.S. public school districts: 13,588
    Source: The Center for Education Reform
  • Total number of U.S. public and private K-12 Schools: 132,183
    Source: The Center for Education Reform
    • Elementary: 88,565
    • Secondary: 27,427
    • Combined: 14,895
    • Other: 1,296
  • The U.S. has more than 38.7 million elementary school students and over 16.1 million secondary school students for a combined total of more than 54.8 million students. Source: Center for Education Reform
  • Children under 18 years represent 23 percent of the population, but they comprise 34 percent of all people in poverty. Source: National Center For Children in Poverty
  • In 2013, 30.7 million children ate school lunch every day, totaling almost 5.1 billion lunches. 70.5% of the children served qualified for free/reduced (F/R) school meals. Source: USDA - Food and Nutrition Service
  • In 2013, 13.2 million children ate school breakfast every day, totaling over 2.2 billion breakfasts. 84.8% of the children served qualified for F/R school meals. Source: USDA - Food and Nutrition Service

Childhood Obesity

Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention

  • Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
  • The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period.
  • In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
  • Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults and are therefore more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis. One study showed that children who became obese as early as age 2 were more likely to be obese as adults.

U.S. Households

  • The 2012 federal poverty threshold (FPT)
  • Research suggests that, on average, families need an income equal to about two times the federal poverty level to meet their most basic needs. Families with incomes below this level are referred to as low income:
  • Food Insecurity by household:

Free/Reduced School Meal Eligibility

  • Income-Based Eligibility: Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced‐price meals, For the period July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2015, 130% of the poverty level is $31,005 for a family of four; 185% is $44,123. Source: USDA Food & Nutrition Service
  • Categorical Eligibility: This means that all children who fall in that category may receive free school meals. 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. Source: Food Research and Action Center (FRAC)
  • 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. States and school districts should also work with other agencies, such as the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) office to certify without paper application other categorically eligible children. Source: Food Research and Action Center (FRAC)
  • 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. Source: Food Research and Action Center (FRAC)

National School Lunch Program (NSLP)

Source: USDA Food & Nutrition Service

  • In 1946, the National School Lunch Act created the modern school lunch program, though USDA had provided funds and food to schools for many years prior to 1946.
  • Children eligible for reduced‐price meals can be charged no more than 40 cents for school lunch.
  • Most of the support USDA provides to schools in the National School Lunch Program comes in the form of a cash reimbursement for each meal served. See the NSLP Federal Register Notices for current reimbursement rates.

School Breakfast Program (SBP)

Source: USDA Food & Nutrition Service

  • The School Breakfast Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It began as a pilot project in 1966, and was made permanent in 1975. 
  • Children eligible for reduced‐price meals can be charged no more than 30 cents for school breakfast.
  • Most of the support USDA provides to schools in the School Breakfast Program comes in the form of a cash reimbursement for each breakfast served. See the SBP Federal Register Notices for current reimbursement rates.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Source: No Kid Hungry

  • More than 85% of benefits are spent on fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, meat, and meat alternatives.
  • Nearly 50% of SNAP participants are children.
  • Average monthly SNAP benefit per person is $1.48 per meal.

U.S. Food Industry

  • Each year manufacturers pour about 15 million pounds of eight synthetic dyes into our foods. Per capita consumption of dyes has increased five-fold since 1955, thanks in part to the proliferation of brightly colored breakfast cereals, fruit drinks, and candies pitched to children. Source: Center for Science in the Public Interest
  • In 2011, 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold in the U.S. for meat and poultry production. In the same period only 7.7 million pounds were sold to treat sick people in the U.S. (Thus, Animal Husbandry buys 80% of antibiotics sold.) Source: The PEW Charitable Trust
  • US Agriculture uses 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides each year; roughly 4 lbs for every American. Source: Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
  • Today, it is estimated that 20% of American children have allergies. More importantly, Common popular foods in the United States contain chemicals and toxins that have been linked to alarming recent increases in food allergies, ADHD, cancer, and asthma in our children. In the last twenty years, we have seen an epidemic increase in allergies, asthma, ADHD and autism, including:
    • 400% increase in food allergies
    • 300% increase in asthma, with a 56% increase in asthma deaths
    • 400% increase in ADHD
    • Between a 1,500 and 6,000% increase in autism

      Source: Allergy Kids Foundation
  • Only 5–10% of all cancer cases can be attributed to genetic defects, whereas the remaining 90–95% have their roots in the environment and lifestyle…The evidence indicates that of all cancer-related deaths, almost 25–30% are due to tobacco, as many as 30–35% are linked to diet, about 15–20% are due to infections, and the remaining percentage are due to other factors like radiation, stress, physical activity, environmental pollutants etc. Source: Cytokine Research Laboratory, Department of Experimental Therapeutics, The University of Texas M.

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