Policy Priorities

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Child Nutrition Programs

The federal nutrition programs play an important role in providing access to nutritious food for millions of children and families. This year, the majority of them are set to be reauthorized via the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act. 

What are the child nutrition programs?

The National School Lunch Program provides a healthy lunch during the school day to all children who choose to participate. Low-income children qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The objectives of the National School Lunch Program are to make available to all students enrolled in schools and institutions a meal during a period designated as the lunch period; to provide nutritionally adequate meals that are acceptable to students, thus reducing plate waste; to provide assistance to participants to ensure that minimum meal requirements are met; and to ensure that all programs are accountable. More than 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program, and almost two-thirds of them receive free or reduced-price meals.

The School Breakfast Program ensures that all children across the country can get a healthy breakfast at school. Children are eligible for free, reduced-price, or paid breakfasts based on their families’ income. More than 80% of the 10.5 million children in the National School Breakfast Program receive free or reduced-price breakfasts.

The Child and Adult Care Food Program reimburses child care centers, Head Start programs, family child care homes, homeless shelters and afterschool programs for snacks and meals served to children. Eligible children and families may receive free or reduced-price meals through the participating centers. More than 3.1 million children receive nutritious meals and snacks in child care programs through the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

The Summer Food Service Program ensures that children who depend on school lunch and breakfast during the school year still have access to these meals during the summer. However, only one in nine low-income children who eat a free or reduced-price school lunch during the school year are reached by the Summer Food Service Program. During the summer, children may receive school lunches through their schools or through community-based summer programs participating in the Summer Food Service Program. If a community-based program is located in an area where more than 50% of the children qualify for free or reduced price school lunches, it is eligible to receive funding from the School Food Service Program to provide free lunches.

The Afterschool Snack and Meal Program provides funds to private, nonprofit and public organizations to serve nutritious snacks (and meals in some states) as part of afterschool programs.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides nutritious foods, nutrition education, and access to health care to low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children up to age 5. Infants and young children represent 75% of those receiving WIC assistance. After the recession began in late 2007, participation increased by more than 800,000 over the next two years.

The WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program issues coupons to WIC recipients that can be used to purchase fresh, locally-grown fruits and vegetables at participating local famers’ markets.

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides fresh fruit and vegetable snacks to children during the school day. It is only available for elementary schools in which at least 50% of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.

The Special Milk Program serves milk to children in schools and child care institutions that do not participate in other nutrition programs.

Other related nutrition assistance programs in the US include:

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Programs (SNAP), previously known as the Food Stamp Program, provides families with monthly benefits to purchase food. It provides low-income households with an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card that they can use like cash at most grocery stores. EBT is an electronic system that allows a recipient to authorize transfer of their government benefits from a federal account to a retailer. After peaking in 1994, the number of children receiving food stamps has been rising rapidly again since 2000. During 2008, an average of 13.5 million children each month received food stamps, an increase of more than 44% since 1999.

The USDA Food Distribution Programs distribute food and commodities to low-income families, emergency feeding programs, Indian Reservations, and the elderly.