1. Learn the Facts: National School Lunch Program and Alternative Schools

Learn the Facts: National School Lunch Program and Alternative Schools

Question: Are youth in alternative educational programs eligible for free and reduced school lunch?

FACT: Youth in alternative education settings that participate in the National School Lunch Program other may be eligible for free or reduced price lunch.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program available to public and nonprofit private schools, as well as residential child care institutions throughout the country. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. Generally, public or nonprofit private schools of high school grade or under and public or nonprofit private residential child care institutions, including alternative educational programs, may participate in the NSLP. In addition to the NSLP, schools may offer breakfast through the School Breakfast Program. School food authorities participating in the NSLP can also be reimbursed for snacks served to children through age 18 in afterschool educational or enrichment programs.

Eligible Institutions:

  • Public or Nonprofit Private Schools (High School grade or under)
  • Public or Nonprofit Residential Care Institutions, including many alternative educational programs


When youth, who are certified for free or reduced price school meals, transfer academic settings, their eligibility automatically transfers if they remain in the same school district. Outside of the same school district, the sending and receiving schools are encouraged to facilitate continued eligibility for these students.

School food authorities that choose to participate in the NSLP get cash reimbursements for the meals they serve as well as available food products from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In return, they must serve lunches that meet the Federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price meals to all eligible children.

Any child at a participating school may purchase a school meal. In order for a child to be eligible for the free meals, their families income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty level or the child is “categorically eligible” because of s/he is, for example, a foster child or whose family receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those families with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for the reduced price meals. The maximum charge for reduced price lunch is 40 cents.

However, there are some limitations: if the alternative site is not included in the NSLP agreement the school food authority  has with its State agency, the site would need to apply directly to the State agency to participate and if eligible to meet program requirements, such as certifying students for free or reduced price meals, ensuring that meals meet the nutrition requirements and filing claims for reimbursement.

Moreover, if the alternative education program is a residential child care institution, they are eligible to apply to participate or may be part of an existing school food authority.  Usually, children residing in one of these facilities qualify for free meal benefits.

In 2010, more than 31.7 million children each day got their lunch through the National School Lunch Program, a number that has been growing since the program’s inception in 1946.