People often call the Child Nutrition Division to ask questions
about how benefits are provided under the school meal programs or
to find out what schools are required to do to receive
reimbursement under these programs. This page provides answers to
many of these questions. The questions and answers are arranged by
category. If you do not find the information you are looking for
or if you wish a more technical explanation, you should contact
the agency that administers the programs in your State. A list of
State agencies including addresses and telephone numbers can be
found in the Contacts
section of this web site.
School meals are required to meet specific nutrition standards
to operate the school meals programs.
align school meals with the
latest nutrition science and
the real world
circumstances of Americaís schools.
(For more information on the standards available to school menu planners, click here.)
Do children have to select everything that is offered?
By law, children in high school must be permitted to
decline lunch items they do not intend to eat. The program
regulations allow schools to elect to extend this permission to
elementary and junior high school children as well. This means
that high school children may decline as many as two of the five
items in a food-based lunch, and younger children may decline one
or two items depending on local policy. For
breakfast, a child may decline one item regardless of which menu
planning option is used.
What can be done to improve the meals served in schools?
We recognize that school meals must look and taste good if
children are going to eat them. To address this need, we have
developed and distributed a wide range of materials designed to
provide local meal planners with recipes and other tools to help
them prepare appealing school meals. To learn more about these
materials, click here. To learn about education materials
designed for children and their families, click here.
We are also actively working with our State partners to provide
training and technical assistance to local schools. Ultimately,
however, this issue is most effectively addressed at the local
level through the efforts of concerned parents. We actively
encourage parents to become involved in their childrenís school
meals and to bring concerns and suggestions to the attention of
local officials. Following is a checklist of ten steps that
parents should take to ensure that school meals are healthy,
nutritious and appealing.
Eat breakfast or lunch at school with your children. See
what the meals are like. Notice the atmosphere. If you donít
like what you see, do something.
Make your opinions heard. Talk to other parents. Work with
your PTA and school board to support healthy school meals.
Go to the principal. Discuss the importance of good
nutrition and physical activity. Suggest programs. Ask for
cooperation. Most importantly, follow through.
Get a weekly menu of school meals. Ask for the nutrition
facts so you can be sure the menu meets the official Dietary
Guidelines for Americans. (Click here for
a PDF version of the
guidelines applicable to the school meal programs.) Keep the
menu magnetized to your refrigerator. Discuss all the
healthy choices with your children.
Visit the school cafeteria. Get to know the staff. Let
them know you value their services and appreciate good daily
nutrition for your child.
Show your children and their friends where healthy food
comes from. Help your school start an edible landscape with
a garden of goodies like fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Volunteer to organize a classroom tasting party to
introduce and encourage nutritious new foods the children
may never have tried.
Get involved. Form a parent advisory committee for school
meals. Recruit enthusiastic "can do" people to
work with you.
Make sure your children appreciate how healthy breakfasts
and lunches serve their minds as well as their bodies.
Listen to what your children are learning at school about
good nutrition. You can help them put their knowledge to
work at home, too.
Are items such as carbonated beverages allowed to be sold in
The regulations for the National School Lunch Program and the
School Breakfast Program do not prohibit the sale of foods in
competition with reimbursable meals as long as those foods are not
considered to be foods of minimal nutritional value (see below).
Foods that may be sold in the cafeteria during the meal service
include items that are part of the reimbursable meal but are
purchased separately (seconds, for example) or items such as ice
cream that are not credited as a component of a reimbursable meal
but are not considered to be a food of minimal nutritional value.
Competitive foods could also include foods sold in the cafeteria
by school organizations as long as the revenues from these sales
go to the food service, the school or an approved student
The program regulations prohibit the sale of certain categories
of foods of minimal nutritional value in the food service area
during the breakfast and lunch periods. These categories (which
include carbonated beverages and certain candies) are so
designated because they do not provide at least 5 percent of the
Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for any one of several key nutrients.
For a complete discussion of the categories of foods of minimal
nutritional value, including the criteria for making this
designation, click here.
Federal regulations do not prohibit the sale of foods of
minimal nutritional value elsewhere on the school grounds.
However, States and local schools have the authority to do so, and
many have adopted such restrictions.
What is the Department of Agriculture doing to address the sale
of carbonated beverages in schools?
Because children have so many opportunities to select foods
both inside and outside the school, the issue of competitive foods
must be addressed through education and awareness rather than just
through regulation. USDA certainly recognizes its obligation to
work closely with State and local food service professionals to
ensure that children have appealing and nutritious breakfasts and
lunches available in the school cafeteria.
However, since other foods are available elsewhere in the
school, we have forged an active partnership with the U. S.
Department of Education to ensure that the education community is
aware of these nutrition issues and can lend its support to our
efforts. This partnership is particularly important because, in
many communities, the sale of carbonated beverages in the schools
represents a significant source of revenue to purchase equipment
and supplies for the schools.
For these reasons, we are working directly with the education
community to create and nurture a physical environment that
fosters healthy eating choices and experiences. As a first step,
in June 1999, we conducted a forum where school officials,
educators and health experts from around the country had the
opportunity to discuss the role of school environments on healthy
eating behavior and to suggest ways to foster change. In response
to that forum, we have developed an Action Kit to Promote Healthy
School Environments (click
here). This Kit lays out in
plain language the kinds of things that schools and communities
can do to promote good nutrition and includes materials that can
be used to educate people on the issues raised during the forum.
Most importantly, the family needs to be involved in helping
children to understand the principles of sound nutrition and to
make healthy food choices. So much of what children learn about
eating, they learn at home. In recognition of this basic fact,
Team Nutrition is developing and distributing materials designed
to educate children, their parents and the community at large
about the importance of sound nutrition and the necessity for
children to eat balanced meals. To learn more about these
materials, click here. Ultimately, we expect that these
efforts will lead children to choose healthier diets, not only in
school but also throughout their lives.
Accommodations for Children with Special Dietary Needs
Are schools required to make menu substitutions for children
who cannot eat the regular lunch or breakfast?
Federal law and the regulations for the National School Lunch
Program and the School Breakfast Program require schools to make
accommodations for children who are unable to eat the school meal
as prepared because of a disability. Accommodation generally
involves substituting food items, but in some cases schools may
need to make more far reaching accommodations to meet the needs of
children. For example, some children may need to have the texture
In order to make substitutions for items in reimbursable meals,
the school must have on file a written statement signed by a
licensed physician indicating what the childís disability is,
what foods must be omitted from the childís diet, and what foods
must be substituted.
Schools may, at their option, make substitutions for persons
who have special needs that do not meet the definition of
disability under Federal law. In these instances, the school must
have a written statement signed by a recognized medical authority
(e.g., nurse or physicianís assistant) indicating what foods
should be substituted.
The purpose of requiring a written statement is two-fold.
First, it ensures that the nutrition integrity of the school meal
will not be compromised by the substitution. More importantly, it
ensures that decisions about specific food substitutes are made by
persons who are highly qualified to prescribe them. Therefore,
this requirement helps to protect both the child and the food
service personnel who are working to meet the childís needs.
Who qualifies as a physician or other recognized medical
A physician is a person licensed by the State to practice
medicine. The term includes osteopathic physicians or doctors of
osteopathic medicine. These are fully trained physicians who are
licensed by the State to prescribe medication or to perform
surgery. A recognized medical authority is a licensed physician,
physician assistant, nurse practitioner or other health
professional specified by the State agency.
Free and Reduced Price Meals
What are the eligibility standards for free and reduced price
Schools are required to serve meals at no
charge to children whose household income is at or below 130
percent of the Federal poverty guidelines. Children are entitled
to pay a reduced price if their household income is above 130
percent but at or below 185 percent of these guidelines. The
current income and family size criteria can be found under the
Guidelines elsewhere on this web site. Children are
automatically eligible for free school meals if their household
receives food stamps, benefits under the Food Distribution
Program on Indian Reservations or, in most cases, benefits under
the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
What income is counted in determining eligibility for free and
reduced price meals?
For the most part, all income actually
received by the household is counted. This includes salary,
public assistance benefits, social security payments, pensions,
unemployment compensation and the like. The only exceptions are
benefits under Federal programs which, by law, are excluded from
consideration; in-kind benefits, such as military on-base
housing (but not military housing allowances); certain kinds of
assistance for students and irregular income from occasional
small jobs such as baby-sitting or lawn mowing. For complete
information, contact the school or the agency that administers
the school nutrition programs in your State.
If a child and the childís parent live with the childís
grandparent, must the grandparentís income be included on the
application for free and reduced price meals?
A household is defined as a group of related or unrelated
individuals who are not residents of an institution or boarding
house but who are living as one economic unit. This means they
generally reside in the same house and share expenses such as
rent, utilities and food. In this example, therefore, the
grandparentís income would be considered along with any income
received by the parent. The principal exception to this rule would
be payments for foster children, who live with a household but
remain the legal responsibility of the court or welfare agency. In
these situations, the child is considered to be a "household
of one", and only the income actually made available to the
child for personal expenses is counted in making the eligibility
How are cases of joint custody treated?
When joint custody has been awarded and the child
physically changes residence, the child is considered part of the
household where she/he resides. In these situations, if both parents
apply for benefits in the same LEA for the child, and different
eligibility statuses result, the greatest benefit level is used. For
example, if the motherís situation results in eligibility for free meals
but the fatherís application is denied, the child would receive free
meals regardless of which parent had custody at the time.
Denial of Meals
Are schools required to replace meal tickets if they are lost
Schools may limit the number of meal tickets (or other media of
exchange) they will replace for each child. If a school does elect
to establish a limit on replacements for children eligible for
free or reduced price meals, it must meet the following
requirements. First, each child must be allowed a minimum of three
replacements each school year. Secondly, parents and students must
be advised in writing at the time of application that the school
is adopting this policy. Thirdly, the school must maintain a list
of children who have reported lost and stolen tickets and the
number of occurrences for each child. Prior to denying a
replacement, the list must be checked to see if the child has
reached the limit on replacements. Finally, at least one advance
warning must be given to the child and his or her parents prior to
refusing to replace a ticket.
Schools must always provide meals to preprimary and younger
primary students or to students with disabilities that may make
them unable to take full responsibility for their meal tickets.
The school may also, at its option make appropriate alternate meal
arrangements, such as accompanying the child through the line, in
lieu of actually issuing a replacement ticket.
While we recommend that schools adopt a similar policy for
children who pay the full price for their meals, they are not
required to do so. However, if the school does not have a uniform
policy for all children, it must take care to ensure that needy
children are not overtly identified because of the replacements or
Can schools refuse to serve a child who pays the full price but
forgets his or her money?
All full price pricing policies for school meals are matters of
local discretion. This includes decisions about whether or not to
extend credit to children who forget their meal money or whether
or not to provide an alternate meal to such children. Therefore, a
school could decide not to provide meals to children who must pay
the full price for their meals but do not have the money to do so.
However, while schools are not obligated to provide meals to
children who forget their money, USDA encourages schools to be
flexible in this area, particularly with young children and
children with disabilities who may be unable to take full
responsibility for their money. We encourage schools to provide
some credit for these children or serve an alternate meal. In some
cases, the PTA or other school organization may establish a fund
to pay for children who forget or lose their money. At a minimum,
schools should ensure that parents are fully aware of the policy
adopted for children who do not have their meal money.
Also see Frequently
Asked Questions for the following programs: