Lunchroom Lingo


The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is one of the largest food service operations in the country, serving nearly 30 million students annually. In Ohio, roughly one million meals are served daily at over 4,000 sites across the state.

School lunches provide kids with a nutritious meal, which has been shown to improve focus and academic performance. Daily participation in the School Lunch Program helps develop healthy eating behaviors that children can carry into adulthood. The NSLP also provides opportunities for introducing kids to new foods they may not be experiencing at home. Introduction to new food items can broaden the range of student selection, which can ensure they are eating an adequate, well-balanced diet.

NSLP Photo

While the benefits of school meals are commonly known, some of the terminology within meal programs can be confusing. Here is some lingo that can help you become a school nutrition advocate:

Reimbursable Meal – In order for a lunch to be considered complete, five food items must be offered to students (milk, fruit, vegetable, protein, and grain). For the meal to be considered reimbursable, students must select at least three full portions of the five offered items, with at least one choice being a fruit or vegetable.

All reimbursable meals qualify for government reimbursement if they follow USDA requirements and nutrition standards, are served to eligible students, and are priced as a whole meal rather than individual food items. Reimbursement is provided through the United States Department of Agriculture, as federal and state cash payments. Reimbursement amount depends on student eligibility – free, reduced, or paid.

Free, Reduced and Paid Meals – Kids eligible for free meals come from families with an income at or below 130% (roughly $31,005/yr. for a family of 4) of the poverty level. Those eligible for reduced priced meals come from families with an income between 130% and 185% (roughly $44,123/yr. for a family of 4) of the poverty level. Kids from families above 185% of the poverty level pay full price for their school lunch.

NSLP reimbursement rates for 2014/2015 school year:

  • Free lunches: $2.93
  • Reduced price lunches: $2.53
  • Paid lunches: $0.28
  • Free snacks: $0.80
  • Reduced price snacks: $0.40
  • Paid snacks: $0.07
  • Schools certified as meeting the new nutrition standards receive an additional $.06 per lunch.
  • An additional $.02 per lunch is provided to schools in which 60 percent or more of the second preceding school year lunches were served free or reduced price.

Program Fact Sheet, National School Lunch Program, 2014 data

A la Carte

A la carte items are any food or beverage not sold as a part of reimbursable meals. These items cannot be purchased or included under free or reduced lunch meal eligibility.

Offer vs. Serve (OVS) – Pre-plated meals serve all food components, in the appropriate proportions, and contain the minimum daily requirements under the meal pattern guidelines. Family style meals allow students to serve themselves and give them the choice of selection, with the supervision of cafeteria staff.

The ultimate goal of OVS is to provide students with a wide variety of selection, while reducing excessive amounts of waste.

Certification of Compliance – School districts that fall under the certification of compliance with the new NSLP meal requirements are eligible for an additional 6-cents per lunch reimbursement. This additional reimbursement, provided through the Hunger-Free Kids Act, incentivizes districts to improve the quality of school meals.

Community Eligibility Provisions (CEP) – Schools and local educational agencies with high rates of poverty are able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students.

For more definitions of terms related to the school meal programs, check out the glossary provided by the National Food Service Management Institute. For further information on school meal trends and stats, take a look at the USDA – National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet.

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