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What are the eligibility requirements for the Child Nutrition Program?

Child Nutrition Programs administered by the US Department of Agriculture help ensure children across the country receive nutritious meals and snacks.

Millions benefit from USDA child nutrition programs
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The White House plans to hold the second ever summit aimed to address issues around US hunger, nutrition and health at the end of September. President Biden has said that it is his administration’s goal to end hunger in the US and reduce diet-related diseases in a majority of Americans by the end of the decade.

Part of how the US helps fight food insecurity in children is through child nutrition programs at schools and child care centers across the country. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers these programs to “ensure that children receive nutritious meals and snacks that promote health and educational readiness.”

Millions of children from low-income families receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch at schools around the country every day. Although the pandemic disrupted the operation of programs causing spending to drop initially, in the first full year of the pandemic spending increased dramatically to $28.4 billion in the 2021 fiscal year from $23.6 billion in 2019. The percentage of meals served free or at a reduced price increased significantly as well, in part due to a USDA pandemic waiver.

There are a few different programs offered through the USDA to provide children lacking food security including the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, and Child and Adult Care Food Program that help to ensure low-income children and families have access to nutritional support. Each program supports slightly different groups from a wide range of ages. All have the same eligibility requirements however.

Who is eligible for Food and Nutrition Service programs?

  • 'At or below 130 percent of the Federal poverty line can receive a free lunch.'
  • 'Between 130 and 185 percent of the Federal poverty line can receive a reduce-price lunch.'
  • 'Above 185 of the Federal poverty line can receive a low cost full-price lunch.'

Source: USDA

National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) helps to serve meals at over 100,000 public and non-profit private schools across the US. In 2019, almost thirty million children received a meal through the NSLP. Additionally, more than seventy percent of lunches distributed through the program were given out for free or at a reduced price.

The percentage rose to almost ninety-nine percent in 2021 while the overall number of meals served decreased by over half, due in part to school closures as a result of the pandemic.

The School Breakfast Program is only offered through 90,000 school sites, delivering meals to around 14.8 million kids. Almost ninety percent of these meals were provided at free or reduced price prior to the pandemic but increased to over ninety-nine percent in 2021. The number of meals served dropped by nearly fifty percent from 2019 levels.

Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer

Children who were affected by school closures or reduced hours or attendance for at least 5 consecutive days that are eligible and would have received free or reduced-price meals are eligible receive temporary emergency nutrition benefits through the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT). Likewise, younger children in households participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are also eligible to receive P-EBT benefits if their covered child care facility is closed or operating with reduced hours or attendance, as well as those living in an area where normal school operations are affected by the pandemic.

Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia were approved to operate a P-EBT program during summer 2022. The temporary emergency nutrition benefits are loaded onto EBT cards that are then used to purchase food.


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