School Nutrition Programs

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Specially-prepared meals may be available at school for children with Cerebral Palsy who may have difficulty swallowing or digesting certain foods. It’s one of the guidelines for the school nutrition programs that also offer free and reduced-priced meals to children who qualify.

School nutrition programs ensure balanced meals for school children

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, or USDA-FNS, funds five school nutrition programs targeted toward school-aged children. All participating schools must serve healthy foods that meet the nutrition standards of the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Participating schools must also accommodate children with special dietary needs that may require food substitutions or alternative preparations. To receive this benefit, parents must submit a written statement from a licensed physician confirming the disability and listing what foods must be omitted, and what foods must be substituted.

Special circumstances for children with disabilities

While not all children with physical disabilities come from families with financial challenges, there are other stipulations in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, that may qualify them for school nutrition services.

The IDEA states that students with specified physical, mental, emotional or sensory impairments that need special education and related services are eligible for school nutrition services, at no cost to parents.

Parents of children with an Individualized Education Plan can ask educators to include nutrition needs as part of the document. An IEP is created for student with physical impairments that interfere with learning. Created by teachers, specialists, medical professionals, parents, and sometimes, legal counsel, IEP’s identify specific needs and develop a plan of action to address those needs to maximize learning potential.

Services funded through IDEA include:

  • The purchase of special foods, supplements, or feeding equipment
  • Consultation services of a nutrition professional
  • Assistance from a special education teacher, or other health professional to feed the student
  • Aid to help student develop feeding skills

The public education system offers five school nutrition programs including:

  • School Breakfast Program
  • National School Lunch Program
  • Summer Food Service Program
  • Special Milk Program
  • After School Snack

These nutrition program are detailed below.

School Breakfast Program

The School Breakfast Program, piloted in 1966 and approved nationwide in 1975, is a federally assisted meal program that offers qualified school-aged children in public, nonprofit private schools and residential care institutions nutritional breakfasts at no or low-cost (about 30 cents per meal).

Families with incomes over 185 percent of poverty pay full price, but still get the same benefits of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directed the USDA to update the menus for school nutrition programs based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The changes that come with deadlines through school year 2022-2023 include serving appropriate calories for each age group, offering more fruits and whole grains, and reducing sodium levels overall.

Most of the raw materials come from USDA commodities. Districts contract with local vendors for the remainder of supplies for each of its schools. State education departments regulate the program on behalf of the federal government.

As long as they meet federal meal requirements, individual schools maintain control of the specific foods to serve and how they are prepared. The USDA offers assistance with its Team Nutrition support services that include technical training and assistance with preparing healthy meals. In addition, it offers nutrition education to help children understand the link between diet and health.

School districts and independent schools that choose to participate will receive cash subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each meal they serve. The amount is calculated by the number of free, reduced and full price meals served.

National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Act was established in 1946 by President Harry Truman to ensure all children had access to nutritional meals while in school. It has evolved to one that now requires meals be served at no or low-cost to eligible children in participating public, nonprofit private residential child care institutions.

Like the National School Breakfast Program, lunches must meet guidelines to include must include more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains as well as age-appropriate caloric provisions.

Some provisions will be gradual, with the last to be completed by the end of school year 2022-2023.

The USDA estimates that 31 million children throughout 100,000 public, non-profit private schools and residential facilities in the United States take advantage of the program.

Those who meet the requirements, which are based heavily on income status (see sidebar), either get their meals free or pay no more than 40 cents.

Special Milk Program

The Special Milk Program was created to provide milk to children in half-day kindergarten or all-day kindergarten who may not have access to it through other means. The latest nutrition guidelines report that low- and no-fat milk is essential for a balanced diet.

The families must meet eligibility requirements, determined by the same federal guidelines as the other school meals programs, for their children to receive the milk free or at a reduced cost. Children who are not eligible will have to pay full price; however, the school, must operate the program as a nonprofit, which means it cannot make a profit.

Participating schools receive a reimbursement from the government for each half pint of state-approved pasteurized, fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk served. The product must contain the level of vitamins A and D recommended by the Food and Drug Administration.

After School Snack

Students who qualify for the National School Lunch Program may also receive free or reduced price after school snacks when they participate in after school enrichment or educational activities, including mentoring or tutoring programs. These programs must meet state and local licensing requirements and safety standards. Competitive interscholastic sports teams are not an eligible after school program.

Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program and sponsor or operate after school activities in a supervised environment may choose to take part in the After School Snack program. These programs must meet state and local licensing requirements and safety standards. Competitive interscholastic sports teams are not an eligible after school program.

They receive cash subsidies from the USDA for each snack they serve. The snacks must meet federal dietary guidelines.

The snacks must include at least two components of the following:

  • A serving of fluid milk
  • A serving of meat or meat alternative
  • A serving of vegetables or fruits
  • A serving of full-strength fruits or full-strength vegetables
  • A serving of whole grain or enriched bread or cereal

A school may also be considered ‘area eligible’ if at least 50 percent of the enrolled children qualify for free or reduced price meals.

Summer Food Service Program

The Summer Food Service Program is available during the summer months when school is typically not in session. Anyone 18 years old or younger who lives in an area that participates can take advantage of this program.

Most are operated at approved sites in low-income communities. Generally, neighborhoods where at least 50 percent of residents live at or below the poverty level, qualify.

The programs are generally initiated and operated at community centers, churches or other nonprofit locations.

There is no application for families who wish to participate. Teens who live in that area can simply show up for the free meals.

Children with disabilities who take part in specially designed summer school activities at community centers may also receive one or two meals and snacks as part of the summer food program.

To find out if there is a Summer Food Service Program near you, go to Why Hunger.


Eligibility is based on household income.

To qualify for free meals, the household income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty level. Programs offered at reduced cost are available to families at 185 percent of the poverty level. Children of families who are above the poverty level must pay full price.

For specific income guidelines, go to Income Guidelines.

Families receiving funds from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF, are automatically eligible for the school nutrition programs. Children whose parents are receiving unemployment benefits may also qualify and may not to fill out an application. Check with school officials.

Applicants may be asked to show proof of all income sources, including annual salary, child support, alimony, investments, SNAP, TANF and cash gifts. They may also be required to present birth certificates and proof of residency.

Participating schools or other nonprofit institutions or care facilities must offer the programs as a nonprofit, which means that they will not receive a profit, even from kids who must pay full cost for their meals.

Application Process

Parents can tap into the School Breakfast Program, the School Lunch Program, the After School Snack program and the Special Milk program by filling out a school meals application, which is typically included in school registration packets that are sent home at the beginning of each school year.

However, students can apply at any time during the year.

Some districts offer online applications. Go to Apply for Lunch to find out if your school participates.

Completed applications are returned to the child’s school, where local education officials review them to determine eligibility. The applications must be used to determine school meals eligibility only. Parents must give written approval for their school officials to share the information with other agencies, including those that can provide additional support services.

One application per year will determine the eligibility of children in all of the above programs. In addition, it will determine eligibility of all children attending the same school. That means parents don’t have to fill out a separate application for each child.


Parents are notified of the determination in writing. The letter will include the reason for the decision. Families will either be approved for free meals, approved for low-cost meals, or denied access to the programs altogether.

Letters of denial must also include the name of the school official to contact if the parent is in disagreement. A conference between the two parties, and anyone else the parent chooses to attend, will be held to discuss the decision and determine if more documentation might change the outcome. If there is no resolution, the parent can request a special hearing before a local education agency official who was not involved in the initial determination.

The final decision will be based on the oral and written evident presented during the hearing.

Special Education

teacher with group of students doing homework

Special Education

Every child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Some children require aids and supports. Parents are urged to research and meet with educators in the public and private sectors to decide the appropriate education path to meet their child’s needs.
Special Education