Every year in the Common Core of Data (CCD), NCES releases data on the number of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meal program that provides nutritionally balanced low-cost or free meals to children during the school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946, and currently serves nearly 30 million children.
This post highlights substantial changes to the NSLP and related changes in CCD reporting and provides guidance on how to use the NSLP data.
Free or Reduced-Price Lunch vs. Direct Certification
Historically, student eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) was determined through individual students submitting school meals application forms within school districts. In 1986, the USDA introduced a direct certification option to reduce participation barriers in the school meal program. Under direct certification, any child belonging to a household that participates in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), or (in some states) Medicaid—as well as children who are migrant, homeless, in foster care, or in Head Start—are categorically eligible to receive free meals at school.
The NSLP data included in CCD releases include school-level FRPL and direct certification eligibility counts for all public schools with students enrolled. These point-in-time counts are taken on or around October 1 of each school year and reported by the states based on the following guidance:
- FRPL-Eligible Students
- Free lunch students: those eligible to participate in the Free Lunch Program (i.e., those with family incomes below 130 percent of the poverty level or who are directly certified)
- Reduced-price lunch students: those eligible to participate in the Reduced-Price Lunch Program (i.e., those with family incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level)
- Free and reduced-price lunch student: the total of free lunch students and reduced-price lunch students
- Direct Certification
- The number of students reported as categorically eligible to receive free meals to the USDA for the FNS 742. Students are categorically eligible to receive free meals if they belong to a household receiving the selected federal benefits noted above or are migrant, homeless, in foster care, or in Head Start.
The count of students eligible for free lunch includes students directly certified plus any students who qualified for free lunch by completing a school meals application. As such, the number of students reported as directly certified should always be less than or equal to the number of free lunch students.
Note that changes in SNAP (both legislated eligibility requirements and temporary changes such as national disasters) can have implications for reported NSLP eligibility as well.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010
In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) established national nutrition standards for food served and sold in schools and made changes to the NSLP to increase food access. These changes also impacted the NSLP data published through CCD:
- While direct certification had been an option since 1986, HHFKA mandated that states directly certify NSLP eligibility for at least 95 percent of SNAP participants. With the mandated use of direct certification, several states stopped reporting FRPL eligibility entirely.
- HHFKA introduced the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to expand access to free meals to all students in low-income areas. Schools qualifying under CEP no longer count students who qualify for reduced-price lunch since all students are provided a free lunch. CEP schools may report all students as eligible for free lunch regardless of economic status, since all students are provided a free lunch.
Guidance for Data Users
The NSLP eligibility data published through CCD are often used by researchers as a proxy measure for the number of students living in poverty. However, there are limitations to the usefulness of these data that researchers should consider when using NSLP data.
The NSLP data published through CCD has changed over time. CCD published just FRPL counts through SY 2015–16. Starting in SY 2016–17, states can report FRPL and/or direct certification eligibility counts for each school, and CCD publishes both FRPL and direct certification, as reported by the states.
When creating state and national estimates (including tables in the Digest of Education Statistics), NCES uses FRPL counts when they are available. If FRPL data are not available, direct certification data is used as a proxy. For this type of analysis, NCES includes all schools for which both student enrollment data and FRPL or direct certification were reported. States that only reported direct certification are footnoted. NCES recommends that data users be mindful of the reporting differences when analyzing or drawing conclusions with these data.
The NSLP data meet a variety of critical analysis needs to help policy makers, researchers, and the public target resources and answer policy questions. CCD is the only source of nationwide school-level NSLP data. Explore NSLP data as well as all of the other CCD data elements available either by using the CCD data query tool or by downloading data files directly.
By Beth Sinclair, AEM, and Chen-Su Chen, NCES
 In SY 2018–19, states reported FRPL counts for 95 percent of schools. Five states/jurisdictions reported solely the number of direct certification students (Delaware, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and American Samoa). The remaining states/jurisdictions were split: about half reported solely the number of FRPL students for each school and the other half reported both FRPL and direct certification for each school (or FRPL for some schools and direct certification for others).