School Meals FAQs
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 want a more technical explanation, you should contact the agency that administers the programs in your state.
Requirements for Meal Content and Quality
- What items must be part of a school lunch or breakfast?
School meals are required to meet specific nutrition standards to operate the school meals programs. The standards align school meals with the latest nutrition science and the real world circumstances of America’s schools. (For more information on the standards available to school menu planners, visit the Healthy Meals Resource System.)
- 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, visit the Healthy Meals Resource System. To learn about education materials designed for children and their families, search for Team Nutrition resources.
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 children’s 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 don’t 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. 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.
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 modified.
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 child’s disability is, what foods must be omitted from the child’s 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 physician’s 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 child’s needs.
- Who qualifies as a physician or other recognized medical authority?
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 meals?
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. 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 child’s parent live with the child’s grandparent, must the grandparent’s 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 grandparent’s 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 determination.
- 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 mother’s situation results in eligibility for free meals but the father’s 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 or stolen?
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 arrangements.
- 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.
The contents of this guidance document do not have the force and effect of law and are not meant to bind the public in any way. This document is intended only to provide clarity to the public regarding existing requirements under the law or agency policies.