Providing a healthy school lunch every day is a challenge for most parents. Many families are eligible to save on school lunches through the federal free and reduced lunch program; however, they never sign up because they assume they won’t qualify or have other concerns. The truth is the program has undergone many revisions in recent years and may be just what you need to take some of the strain off your family's budget. Here’s what you need to know:

What does it cover?

Free and reduced lunch programs vary from school to school but can include breakfast, lunch and snacks served at afterschool educational enrichment programs. If we assume that a school meal costs $2.86, this could save eligible families over $1,000 per child every year! Not only does this program cover food, it can also determine eligibility for other savings like fee waivers for SAT and AP testing.

Who can qualify?

Many struggling families assume that they make too much to qualify for free and reduced lunch, but you don’t have to be in poverty to claim this benefit. Students whose families are at 130 percent of the poverty level qualify for free lunch, and students whose families are between 131–185 percent of the poverty level qualify for a reduced lunch of around 40 cents. This means that a family of four can still make over $40,00 per year and get reduced lunch benefits! Both income and family size will determine eligibility. You can see the requirements here, or you can check with your school's main office.

Is the program at my school?

The federal free and reduced school lunch program is in over 100,000 public and not-for-profit private schools throughout the country. If your child is attending a K–12 public school, it is safe to assume they are running a free lunch program, but even if your child attends a private or charter school you still may be eligible. Just call your child's school to find out more.

Can the school afford it?

In these times of educational cutbacks you may be worried that the school can’t afford to feed your kids, but the school actually gets reimbursed by the federal government for all free and reduced meals served.

Not only will it not hurt your school, it may actually help! Teachers who work at schools with high numbers of students taking advantage of the free and reduced lunch program may be eligible for up to $15,000 in student loan forgiveness, as part of a program put in place to attract the best teachers to higher-poverty schools. Additionally, if enough students meet eligibility for free lunch, the school may qualify as a Title 1 school. This means they get extra government funding that can be used for a variety of things to support students academically, like hiring extra classroom assistants. Though a lot of schools qualify for this extra funding, many don’t receive it—because many of the students who meet the requirements for free and reduced lunch are not signed up for the program. With all these benefits, the real question is: if you are eligible, can the school afford for you to not sign up?

Is the food healthy?

There have been many revisions to the school lunch program in recent years including reducing sodium, switching to fat-free milk, eliminating trans fats, requiring two serving of fruit/veggies for lunch, and establishing age-specific calorie requirements. This is not the deep-fried school lunch you may remember. The lunch ladies at the school I work at take nutrition very seriously—they won’t even let me get out of line with just one piece of fruit!

Will it make my child stand out at school?

Kids—especially older kids—just want to fit in. You may be worried that getting lunch for free will make them stand out. Many schools have kids swipe a card or punch in a code to access their accounts, which means that there is no way to tell who gets free lunch and who is using a prepaid account. If you have concerns, ask your school how they handle this issue.

This is a guest post by April from Grand Blanc, MI
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