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School Meals

Unpaid Meal Charges

Last Published: 11/24/2017

school food service employees

The goal of the School Meal Programs is to provide nutritious meals to children during the school day. Children may receive breakfast and lunch at no cost to them if they are categorically eligible for free meals or if they qualify for free meals based on Federal poverty guidelines. Sometimes, however, children who do not qualify based on these standards would like a breakfast or lunch, but do not have money in their account or in-hand to cover the cost of the meal at the time of the meal service.

FNS recognizes that unpaid meal charges represent a difficult and complex issue directly impacting the schools participating in our programs, as well as the children they serve. We are sensitive to the fact that local officials must balance their desire to provide for hungry children lacking the means to pay for meals with the demands of maintaining the financial viability of their school food service operation. FNS greatly appreciates the efforts of local officials working to overcome this challenge in communities nationwide.

This section of our website includes policy guidance, best practice resources, and other tools State agencies and local program operators can use in their efforts to overcome the challenge of unpaid meal charges. Looking ahead, FNS will continue to gather grassroots input on the current policies and practices of the State and local agencies that administer the School Meal Programs, and will use this information to continually update and improve our guidance on unpaid meal charges. Our overarching goal is to provide practical guidance that meets the needs of schools, families, and children.

Report to Congress

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA, Public Law 111-296; December 13, 2010), required USDA to examine and report on current charge and alternate meal policies and practices of State agencies and local educational agencies (LEAs). HHFKA also required USDA to report on the feasibility of establishing national standards for such policies and, if applicable, make recommendations for implementation.

To complete the Report to Congress, FNS included questions about charge and alternate meal policies in a multi-year, nationally representative study and issued a Request for Information (RFI) entitled Unpaid Meal Charges. The results of the study and the 462 comment submissions we received during the RFI open comment period contributed greatly to the Report, and to our understanding and appreciation of this issue.

Policy Guidance

Unpaid Meal Charges Policy Guidance

  • SP 29-2017: 2017 Edition of Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge: Proven Strategies from Our Nation’s Schools
  • SP 23-2017: Unpaid Meal Charges: Guidance and Q&A
  • SP 47-2016: Unpaid Meal Charges: Clarification on Collection of Delinquent Meal Payments
  • SP 46-2016: Unpaid Meal Charges: Local Meal Charge Policies

Other Relevant Policy Guidance

  • SP 51-2016: Ensuring Year-long Eligibility in the School Lunch and Breakfast Programs
  • SP 43-2016: Ensuring Access to Free and Reduced Price School Meals for Low-Income Students
  • SP 37-2016: Meaningful Access for Persons With Limited English Proficiency (LEP) in the School Meal Programs: Guidance and Q&As
  • SP 51-2014: Eligibility Effective Date for Directly Certified Students
  • SP 17-2014: Discretionary Elimination of Reduced Price Charges in the School Meal Programs
  • SP 11 CACFP 06 SFSP 11-2011: Effective Date of Free or Reduced Price Meal Eligibility Determinations
  • FNS Instruction 113-1: Civil Rights Compliance and Enforcement – Nutrition Programs and Activities

Best Practice Resources

Handbooks and Guides


Charge Policy Development Checklists (Optional)