Through the National School Lunch program, USDA's Food and Nutrition Services agency provides lunches that follow specific nutrition guidelines at a reduced cost to children who qualify. Though the income eligibility guidelines for free or reduced-cost lunches are modified annually, they are always designed to provide tasty, nutritionally adequate meals for kids who might otherwise struggle to afford them due to their family's financial situation. To take advantage of free or reduced-price lunch benefits, interested parties should submit a completed application form, generally available on school districts' websites.
Free School Lunches
Free school lunches offer substantial nutrition for substantial savings to families who qualify. The family's net income must be less than 130 percent of the poverty level for a child to receive free lunches -- lower than it is for reduced-price lunches. As of 2014, 130 percent in most states means a two-person household - one parent and one child - is earning no more than $20,449 annually. For a six-person household -- two parents and four children, or one parent and five children -- 130 percent of the poverty level is $41,561.
Reduced Price Meals
Based on income alone, children are eligible for reduced price meals if their parents make less than 185 percent of the poverty level, which for a two-person household is $29,101, or $59,145 for a six-person household. Savings over time can be substantial. In the Portland, Oregon, school districts, a daily high school lunch that would ordinarily cost $3.20 is reduced to 40 cents.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
Any parents who are receiving assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- also called SNAP and known in the past as food stamps -- are eligible for their children to take advantage of free and reduced school lunches. Even those who are working may benefit from the SNAP program, although only those making a gross monthly income up to 130 percent of the poverty level qualify for benefits. The amount varies in some states, but most states consider the monthly eligible income to be $1,705 for a two-person household up to $4,929 for a six-member household.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
A parent's enrollment in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, leads to direct eligibility for free and reduced price lunches for her children. The program itself provides direct financial help, an amount based on family size and income. The cash is meant to help pay for basic necessities like clothing, housing and transportation. According to the TANF Bureau, adults are limited to 60 months of assistance during their entire adult lifetime, and some states limit financial assistance for adults to 36 months at a time. Children are generally entitled to financial assistance for a longer period of time if applicable, but the aid is designated first and foremost to families in need.
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