School Year Meals Programs

Irene, the community school coordinator, talks to Elijah

Schools are a great resource for families who are having trouble making ends meet. Food banks and schools work together to help kids have free or low-cost meals and groceries to share with their families. When kids have great food, they have the energy and focus they need to learn and grow.

What programs help kids get free food during the school year?

Many programs help feed kids before, during, and after school as well as during summer and school breaks. Here are a few that you may find at your local school or in your community.

  • National School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program: These federal programs help schools provide free or low-cost meals to students each school day. Families complete an application through their school.
  • School Pantry Program: Pantries located at neighborhood schools or other convenient sites in the community give families easy access to the food they need. Depending on the school, the pantry may be open during specific days and times, including after school. School pantries generally have fresh fruits and vegetables, shelf-stable and frozen foods, and sometimes non-food items like toilet paper, laundry detergent, and soap.
  • BackPack Program: Schools provide kids and their families with backpacks of delicious and easy-to-prepare food for the weekend. Kids usually pick up their backpacks from teachers or other school staff on Fridays or before school breaks.
  • Kids Cafe: These after-school programs at school and community organizations provide free snacks or meals as well as fun activities and tutoring for kids.
  • School Meal Pickups: During the coronavirus pandemic, many schools are offering families free meals and/or groceries at local schools. These meal pickups are available if the school is closed or if students are learning remotely or if the school is operating a hybrid learning model. Often, families do not need to attend school to pick up free food.
  • Summer Meal Programs: Even when school is out, kids can find free meals in their communities. Free summer meals are available at many churches, schools, libraries, and community centers for kids and teens.

If your family needs more support, there many other ways that food banks can help.


Are school meals programs still running during the COVID pandemic?

Yes, but to keep our communities safe, there may continue to be changed to meal programs that feed kids during the school year. This may include a change to hours, locations, and meal options. School districts and food banks may also introduce new options for families as the coronavirus response changes.

Check with your school, school district, or local meal program before visiting to confirm hours and availability. They can also tell you about additional ways they’re helping to keep kids safe and fed. Some programs may offer

  • Grab-and-go meals so kids can follow social distancing guidelines

  • Pre-packed breakfasts and lunches or groceries for multiple days
  • Meal delivery to bus stops, public housing or other central locations while schools are closed or students are learning at home
  • Parents and caregivers may be able to pick up meals and groceries on behalf of children


How do I find a free meal program in my community?

It can be hard to know how to find a program that meets your family’s needs. Here are three easy ways to find your nearest free meal site.

  • Ask your local food bank: Search by zip code or state using the food bank locator and contact the food bank nearest you. Even if the food bank looks far away, they often work with schools and meal programs closer to your home.
  • Check with your school or school district: Reach out to your local school or district to learn about if and how they are providing free meals for students. Times, locations, and requirements may vary depending on where you live.
  • Text: You can find meal programs near you by texting the word FOOD to 304-304, thanks to our friends at No Kid Hungry. You’ll get a message with nearby locations. Data and message rates may apply.
  • Call: Calling the USDA Hotline at 1-866-348-6479 is another great way to find free meal programs in your area. You can reach them Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Eastern.

Find Your Local Food Bank


What can I do to help?

More families may need help these days and knowing where to find help can be hard. The best way to help is by sharing information with your neighbors about how their children can get free meals during the school year. If your family uses programs like these, share your story and let people know it’s okay to need help sometimes.

If you’re interested in doing more to help fight child hunger, you can: