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What School Lunch Programs May Your Child Benefit From?

With ever-increasing grocery costs, feeding your family on a tight budget can feel tougher than ever before. You may be facing some difficult decisions -- such as having to juggle regular bills to afford groceries, or putting off new clothing or other necessary purchases. However, if your child attends public school and your income is at or below a certain threshold, your child may be entitled to a number of free or reduced-cost breakfast, lunch, and summer meal programs. Read on to learn more about the free lunch programs offered by the federal government, as well as what you'll need to do to help your child qualify for and take advantage of these programs.

Is your child entitled to a free lunch?

The federal government, through the Food and Nutrition Service branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has established several programs to help reduce the number of children dealing with hunger. Studies have shown a clear correlation between better nutrition and improved test scores and motivation levels, so ensuring that all students have access to healthy, nutritious food before classes benefits the entire educational system.

Some of the programs available through the USDA (and administered by your local school administration) may include:

  • School breakfast programs

This is a federal program implemented by state governments that can provide breakfast to all children for a specified period of time before the school day begins. Children whose family income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level for family size are eligible for free breakfast each school day. Children whose family income is between 131 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty level may be charged up to $0.30 per lunch, and those whose family income is 186 percent of the federal poverty level (or higher) will be charged full price. Because the federal government reimburses each school system for the number of lunches served, many schools choose to offer this program to low-income students.

  • Free or reduced-cost lunch

Schools are able to offer free and reduced-cost lunches to children under substantially the same terms as breakfasts. Although these reimbursement amounts are fairly low, because batch cooking and bulk cooking is often more economical, schools may have a significant incentive to provide free and reduced-cost lunch to eligible students. This reimbursement system has also been extended to cover after-school snacks for certain eligible programs, all the way from daycare through high school. Feeding a growing teenager can become much less of a hardship when you and your teen take advantage of free breakfast and lunch programs offered through your public school.

  • Summer food programs

Food doesn't magically get cheaper in the summer -- and if your child has been receiving free or reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches, adding in these meals for summer child care can be a huge hit to your budget. Many areas offer summer breakfast and lunch programs at central locations to help serve the same populations who take advantage of free or reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches during the school year. Although these programs aren't available in all areas, you should be able to easily check to see if your community will be offering summer meals to low-income students.

In addition, many state and local governments offer additional food assistance programs. Private programs are also available -- for example, a local church or food bank may offer to donate food to local schools specifically to serve the low-income population. Your school system administration should have more information on the various school nutrition services available in your child's district and may even have resources to help you apply for assistance.