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National School Lunch Program

Information about applying for and administering the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

Program Information

What is the National School Lunch Program?

The National School Lunch Program is a federally funded program that assists schools and other agencies in providing nutritious lunches to children at reasonable prices. In addition to financial assistance, the program provides donated commodity foods to help reduce lunch program costs. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) External link opens in new window or tab. is responsible for overseeing the program nationally. In California, the program is administered by the California Department of Education (CDE), Nutrition Services Division.

What are the benefits of participating in the program?

For children, the National School Lunch Program provides a nutritious meal that contains one-third of the recommended dietary allowance of necessary nutrients. For parents, the program offers a convenient method of providing a nutritionally balanced lunch at the lowest possible price. For schools, the program enhances children's learning abilities by contributing to their physical and mental well being. Studies have shown that children whose nutritional needs are met have fewer attendance and discipline problems and are more attentive in class.

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What type of lunch must be offered?

Please see our School Menu Planning Options page for meal pattern information and our Meal Patterns and Menu Planning page for complete information.

What is involved in operating a National School Lunch Program?

The lunch program must be open to all enrolled children. Free or reduced price meals must be provided to those children who qualify for such benefits according to specified family size and income standards. Agency staff must verify income on a percentage of those children receiving free or reduced price lunches to confirm their eligibility. Records must be kept to document that the lunch program follows all federal and state rules and regulations. Some of the records that must be kept are:

  • Meal production records and inventory records that document the amounts and types of food used.
  • The number of lunches served each day, by site and by category (free, reduced price, and full price).
  • Applications submitted by families for free and reduced price meals, by site, and a description of the follow-up actions taken to verify eligibility.
  • Records of income, expenditures, and contributions received.

The CDE periodically conducts a comprehensive review of each agency's lunch program. Those agencies that annually receive $500,000 or more in federal funds (from all sources) must also be audited each year.

How do we get paid?

The National School Lunch Program is operated on a reimbursement basis, with agencies paid on the number of meals served. Agencies submit a monthly reimbursement claim form, available on the CDE fiscal Nutrition Services-School Nutrition Program Web page, to the CDE. After the Department reviews the form, the claim is sent to the State Controller's Office, where the check is issued. Agencies typically receive reimbursement within four to six weeks after submitting the reimbursement claim form.

Agencies that participate in the program are reimbursed from two sources: the USDA and the State of California. State reimbursement is paid for all free and reduced price meals. Federal reimbursement is paid for all free, reduced price, and paid meals. Visit our Rates, Eligibility Scales, and Funding page for current rates.

What types of agencies may participate?

Public and private nonprofit schools are eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program. Also eligible are public and private nonprofit licensed residential child care institutions (e.g., group homes, juvenile halls, orphanages).

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Where can we get assistance?

Nutritionists and program staff from the CDE are available to provide free technical assistance and guidance on how to operate a National School Lunch Program. Assistance is available on such topics as menu planning, proper food storage and preparation, record keeping and reporting, and clarifying federal and state regulations. Visit the School Nutrition Program (SNP) Primer External link opens in new window or tab. Web page for resources, materials, and technical assistance in the administration and operation of the SNP.

Whom do we contact?

Please see the county list of School Nutrition Programs (SNP) specialists in the Download Forms section of the Child Nutrition Information and Payment System (CNIPS). You may also contact the SNP Unit Secretary by phone at 916-322-1450 or 800-952-5609.

Questions:   School Nutrition Programs Unit | 800-952-5609
Last Reviewed: Wednesday, October 28, 2015

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