OSPI Explains: What Are School Meal Programs?

A student makes their way through a lunch line adding food to their tray. Image courtesy of the Public Health Image Library, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A student makes their way through a lunch line adding food to their tray. Photo: Public Health Image Library

On September 8, Superintendent Reykdal will announce his proposal to provide school meals to all Washington students. In advance of that announcement, we’ll review the current state of school meal programs.

What are school meal programs?

Since the expansion of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act in 1966, schools around the country have provided free and reduced-price meals to students experiencing poverty through U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Child Nutrition Programs.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) administers USDA Child Nutrition Programs, serving over 1 million students in Washington.

How do school meal programs work?

School meal programs are operated by local educational agencies (LEAs), such as school districts and tribal schools. Participating schools receive cash reimbursements and USDA Foods for each reimbursable meal they serve. In turn, schools must serve meals that meet nutritional requirements and provide meals free of charge or at a reduced price to children who qualify.

Washington law requires public schools serving grades 1–4 that have 25% or more students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch to implement a school lunch program (RCW 28A.235.160(2)). Public schools where 40% or more students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches are required to implement a school breakfast program (RCW 28A.235.160(3)).

How does a student qualify for free or reduced-price meals?

Students may be determined as “categorically eligible” for free meals if they are in a household that qualifies for certain Federal Assistance Programs, or by being a student in foster care or experiencing homelessness. Children can also qualify for free or reduced-price school meals based on household income and family size.

Can you give me an example of how free or reduced-price categories work?

Household income must be at or below the dollar amount that corresponds with the size of the family. Income categories are based on 130% (reduced-price) and 185% (free) of the federal poverty level. For example:

  • A family of 5 with a household income of $42,211 or less is eligible for free meals.
  • A family of 5 with a household income of $60,070 or less is eligible for reduced-price meals.
  • A family of 5 with a household income of $60,071 or more is not eligible for free or reduced-price meals and must pay full price.

Income guidelines are updated annually each July.

Are there rules about what schools can serve?

All school meals must meet federal meal pattern and nutritional requirements. Decisions about specific foods to serve and methods of preparation are made by local schools.

How many meals were served last year?

Through child nutrition waivers allowing free meals for all students, schools served over 130 million meals last school year — 20 million more than before the pandemic. During the 2018–19 school year, 110 million meals were served.

Where can I find additional information?

For additional information about school meal programs, check out the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s website:

Be sure to join us on September 8 to learn about Superintendent Reykdal’s proposal to provide school meals to all Washington students. You can watch his announcement live, or watch the recording later, on OSPI’s YouTube channel or on TVW.

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The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

Led by Supt. Chris Reykdal, OSPI is the primary agency charged with overseeing K–12 education in Washington state.